Repeated exposure to a moderately intense stressor typically produces attenuation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response (habituation) on re-presentation of the same stressor; however, if a novel stressor is presented to the same animals, the HPA axis response may be augmented (sensitization). The extent to which this adaptation is also evident within neural activity patterns is unknown. This study tested whether repeated ferret odor (FO) exposure, a moderately intense psychological stressor for rats, leads to both same-stressor habituation and novel-stressor sensitization of the HPA axis response and neuronal activity as determined by immediate early gene induction (c-fos mRNA). Rats were presented with FO in their home cages for 30 min a day for up to 2 wk and subsequently challenged with FO or restraint. Rats displayed HPA axis activity habituation and widespread habituation of c-fos mRNA expression (in situ hybridization) throughout the brain in as few as three repeated presentations of FO. However, repeated FO exposure led to a more gradual development of sensitized HPA-axis and c-fos mRNA responses to restraint that were not fully evident until after 14 d of prior FO exposure. The sensitized response was evident in many of the same brain regions that displayed habituation, including primary sensory cortices and the prefrontal cortex. The shared spatial expression but distinct temporal development of habituation and sensitization neural response patterns suggests two independent processes with opposing influences across overlapping brain systems.
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