Does an extended washout period of six weeks following the end of chronic stress continue the benefits on spatial learning and memory?
Chronic stress often leads to cognitive deficits, especially within the spatial memory domain mediated by the hippocampus. When chronic stress ends and a no-stress period ensues (i.e., washout, WO), spatial ability improves, which can be better than non-stressed controls (CON). The WO period is often the same duration as the chronic stress paradigm. Given the potential benefit of a post-stress WO period on cognition, it is important to investigate whether this potential benefit of a post-stress WO period has long-lasting effects. In this project, chronic restraint (6hr/d/21d) in Sprague-Dawley rats was used, as it is the minimum duration necessary to observe spatial memory deficits. Two durations of post-stress WO were used following the end of chronic restraint, 3 weeks (STR-WO3) and 6 weeks (STR-WO6). Immediately after chronic stress (STR-IMM) or the WO periods, rats were tested on various cognitive tests. We corroborated past studies that chronic stress impaired spatial memory (STR-IMM vs CON). Interestingly, STR-WO3 and STR-WO6 failed to demonstrate improved spatial memory on a radial arm water maze task, performing similarly as STR-IMM. Performance outcomes were unlikely from differences in anxiety or motivation because rats from all conditions performed similarly on an open field task and on a simple object recognition paradigm, respectively. However, performance on object placement was unusual in that very few rats explored, suggesting some degree of anxiety or fear in all groups. One possible interpretation of the unusual results of the 3 week washout group may be attributed to the different spatial memory tasks used across studies or external factors from the study. Further exploration of these other factors led to the conclusion that they did not play a role and the STR-WO3 RAWM data were anomalous to other studies. This suggests that a washout period following chronic stress may not be fully understood.