There is a complex collection of neuroendocrine function during the postpartum period. Prolactin (PRL) released by suckling stimulus and its PRL receptors (PRL-R) in the central nervous system (CNS) are involved in hyporesponsiveness of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in lactating mammals including rodents and humans. It is not clear how long it takes to reestablish the attenuated HPA axis activity of lactating rats to a pre-pregnancy state after pup separation. We first tested the hypothesis that HPA axis activity in response to an acute stress in postpartum rats would return to a pre-pregnancy state after pup separation. Restraint stress for 30 min was performed at the end of pup separation as an acute stressor. Plasma levels of corticosterone (CORT) were measured following restraint stress or no-stress (control) in virgin rats and postpartum rats housed with their pups or with pup removal for different periods of time of one hour, 24 h, or eight days. We then tested the hypothesis that circulating PRL level and CNS PRL-R gene expression were involved in mediating the acute stress response in postpartum rats. Plasma levels of PRL and PRL-R mRNA levels in the choroid plexus of the CNS were determined in both no-stress and stress, virgin rats, and postpartum rats housed with their pups or with pup removal for various periods, and their correlation with plasma CORT levels was assessed. The results demonstrated that PRL levels declined to virgin state in all postpartum rats separated from their pups, including the dams with one-hour pup separation. Stress-induced HPA activity dampened in lactating rats housed with pups, and returned to the pre-pregnancy state after 24 h of pup separation when both circulating PRL level and CNS PRL-R expression were restored to a pre-pregnancy state. Additionally, basal plasma CORT and CNS PRL-R expression were significantly correlated in rats with various pup status. This study suggested that stress-induced HPA activation occurred when PRL-R expression was similar to the level of virgin females, indicating that PRL-R upregulation contributes to an attenuated HPA response to acute stress. Understanding neuroendocrine responses to stress during the postpartum period is critical to understand postpartum-related neuropsychiatric illnesses and to maintain mental health in postpartum women.
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