Stark, R. A., Brinkman, B., Gibb, R. L. et al. 2023. Atypical play experiences in the juvenile period has an impact on the development of the medial prefrontal cortex in both male and female rats. Behavioural Brain Research 439, 114222.

In rats reared without play, or with limited access to play during the juvenile period, the dendrites of pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) exhibit more branching than rats reared with more typical levels of play. This suggests that play is critical for pruning the dendritic arbor of these neurons. However, the rearing paradigms typically used to limit play involve physical separation from a peer or sharing a cage with an adult, causing stress that may disrupt pruning. To limit this potentially confounding source of stress, we used an alternative approach in this study: pairing playful Long Evans rats (LE) with low playing Fischer 344 (F344) rats throughout the juvenile period. We then examined the morphology of medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) neurons, predicting that pruning should be reduced. LE rats reared with another LE rat had significantly greater pruning of mPFC pyramidal neurons compared to LE rats reared with a F344 partner. Furthermore, in previous studies, only one sex or the other was used, whereas in the present rearing paradigm, both sexes were tested, showing that play influences neuronal pruning in both. The neurons of the play deficient LE rats not only occupied more space, as determined by convex hull analyses, but the dendrites were also longer than in rats with more typical play experiences. Unlike studies using more stressful rearing paradigms, the present effects were limited to the apical dendritic projections, suggesting that the previously reported effects on the basilar dendrites may have resulted from developmental disruptions caused by stress. If correct, the present findings indicate that play experienced over the juvenile period affects how mPFC neurons develop and function.

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