Exposure to a single session of footshocks induces long-lasting inhibition of activity in unknown environments that markedly differ from the shock context. Interestingly, these effects are not necessarily associated to an enhanced anxiety and interpretation of this hypoactivity remains unclear. In the present experiment we further studied this phenomenon in male Sprague-Dawley rats. In a first experiment, a session of three shocks resulted in hypoactivity during exposure, 6-12 days later, to three different unknown environments. This altered behaviour was not accompanied by a greater hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activation, although greater HPA activation paralleling higher levels of freezing was observed in the shock context. In a second experiment we used a single shock and two procedures, one with pre-exposure to the context before the shock and another with immediate shock that did not induce contextual fear conditioning. Hypoactivity and a certain level of generalization of fear (freezing) to the unknown environments only appeared in the group that developed fear conditioning, but no evidence for enhanced anxiety in the elevated plus-maze was found in any group. The results suggest that if animals are able to associate an aversive experience with a distinct unknown environment, they would display more cautious behaviour in any unknown environment and such strategy persists despite repeated experience with different environments. This long-lasting cautious behaviour was not associated to greater HPA response to the unknown environment that was however observed in the shock context. The present findings raised some concerns about interpretation of long-lasting behavioural changes caused by brief stressors. © 2010 Elsevier Inc.
- Fear generalization
- Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis