Prenatal Protein Malnutrition Produces Resistance to Distraction Similar to Noradrenergic Deafferentation of the Prelimbic Cortex in a Sustained Attention Task

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Exposure to malnutrition early in development increases likelihood of neuropsychiatric disorders, affective processing disorders, and attentional problems later in life. Many of these impairments are hypothesized to arise from impaired development of the prefrontal cortex. The current experiments examine the impact of prenatal malnutrition on the noradrenergic and cholinergic axons in the prefrontal cortex to determine if these changes contribute to the attentional deficits seen in prenatal protein malnourished rats (6% casein vs. 25% casein). Because prenatally malnourished animals had significant decreases in noradrenergic fibers in the prelimbic cortex with spared innervation in the anterior cingulate cortex and showed no changes in acetylcholine innervation of the prefrontal cortex, we compared deficits produced by malnutrition to those produced in adult rats by noradrenergic lesions of the prelimbic cortex. All animals were able to perform the baseline sustained attention task accurately. However, with the addition of visual distractors to the sustained attention task, animals that were prenatally malnourished and those that were noradrenergically lesioned showed cognitive rigidity, i.e., were less distractible than control animals. All groups showed similar changes in behavior when exposed to withholding reinforcement, suggesting specific attentional impairments rather than global difficulties in understanding response rules, bottom-up perceptual problems, or cognitive impairments secondary to dysfunction in sensitivity to reinforcement contingencies. These data suggest that prenatal protein malnutrition leads to deficits in noradrenergic innervation of the prelimbic cortex associated with cognitive rigidity.