Early life adverse experiences have long-term physiologic and behavioral effects and enhance stress sensitivity. This study examined the effects of maternal separation (MS) on cardiac stress responsivity and structure in adulthood. Male Wistar rats were separated from the dams for 3 h per day from postnatal days 2 through 15. When exposed to 5-day intermittent restraint stress (IRS) as adults, MS, and control rats showed similar acute modifications of cardiac sympathovagal balance, quantified via heart rate variability analysis. In addition, MS had no effect on cardiac pacemaker intrinsic activity (as revealed by autonomic blockade with scopolamine and atenolol) and did not affect the circadian rhythmicity of heart rate, neither before nor after IRS. However, MS differed from control rats in cardiac parasympathetic drive following IRS, which was heightened in the latter but remained unchanged in the former, both during the light and dark phases of the daily rhythm. The evaluation of adult cardiac structure indicated that stress experienced during a crucial developmental period induced only modest changes, involving cardiomyocyte hypertrophy, increased density of vascular structures, and myocardial fibrosis. The mildness of these functional–structural effects questions the validity of MS as a model for early stress-induced cardiac disease in humans.
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