Depressive episodes are frequently preceded by stressful life events. Evidence from genetic association studies suggests a role for the glucocorticoid receptor (GR), an essential element in the regulation of stress responses, in the pathophysiology of the disorder. Since the stress response system is affected by pregnancy and postpartum-associated changes, it has also been implicated in the pathophysiology of postpartum depression. Using a 2×2 factorial design, we investigated whether a heterozygous deletion of GR would influence maternal care behavior in C57BL/6 and Balb/c mice, two inbred strains known to display qualitative differences in this behavior. Behavioral observation was carried out between postnatal days 1 and 7, followed by a pup retrieval test on postnatal days 7 or 8. While previously noted inter-strain differences were confirmed for different manifestations of caring behavior, self-maintenance and neglecting behaviors as well as the pup retrieval test, no strain-independent effect of the GR mutation was noted. However, an interaction between GR genotype and licking/grooming behavior was observed: it was down-regulated in heterozygous C57BL/6 mice to the level recorded for Balb/c mice. Home cage observation poses minimal disturbance of the dam and her litter as compared to more invasive assessments of dams' emotional behavior. This might be a reason for the absence of any overall effects of the GR mutation, particularly since GR heterozygous animals display a depressive-like phenotype under stressful conditions only. Still, the subtle effect we observed may point towards a role of GR in postpartum affective disorders
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