The mammalian hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to chronic stress. Adult neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus is suppressed by chronic stress and by administration of glucocorticoid hormones. Post-natal and adult neurogenesis are present in the avian hippocampal formation as well, but much less is known about its sensitivity to chronic stressors. In this study, we investigate this question in a commercial bird model: the broiler breeder chicken. Commercial broiler breeders are food restricted during development to manipulate their growth curve and to avoid negative health outcomes, including obesity and poor reproductive performance. Beyond knowing that these chickens are healthier than fully-fed birds and that they have a high motivation to eat, little is known about how food restriction impacts the animals' physiology. Chickens were kept on a commercial food-restricted diet during the first 12 weeks of life, or released from this restriction by feeding them ad libitum from weeks 7–12 of life. To test the hypothesis that chronic food restriction decreases the production of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the hippocampal formation, the cell proliferation marker bromodeoxyuridine was injected one week prior to tissue collection. Corticosterone levels in blood plasma were elevated during food restriction, even though molecular markers of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation did not differ between the treatments. The density of new hippocampal neurons was significantly reduced in the food-restricted condition, as compared to chickens fed ad libitum, similar to findings in rats at a similar developmental stage. Food restriction did not affect hippocampal volume or the total number of neurons. These findings indicate that in birds, like in mammals, reduction in hippocampal neurogenesis is associated with chronically elevated corticosterone levels, and therefore potentially with chronic stress in general. This finding is consistent with the hypothesis that the response to stressors in the avian hippocampal formation is homologous to that of the mammalian hippocampus.
Robertson, B-A., Rathbone, L., Cirillo, G., D'Eath, RB., Bateson, M., Boswell, T., Wilson, PW., Dunn, IC., & Smulders, TV. (2017). Food restriction reduces neurogenesis in the avian hippocampal formation. PLoS ONE, 12(12), [e0189158]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0189158