Short Communication | Published:

Reduced anticipatory dopamine responses to food in rats exposed to high fat during early development

International Journal of Obesity volume 37, pages 885888 (2013) | Download Citation


We have previously demonstrated that exposure to high fat (HF) during early development alters the presynaptic regulation of mesolimbic dopamine (DA), and increases incentive motivation for HF food rewards. The goal of the present experiments was to examine the long-term consequences of early exposure to HF on anticipatory and consumatory nucleus accumbens (NAc) DA responses to HF food rewards. Mothers were maintained on a HF (30% fat) or control diet (CD; 5% fat) from gestation day 13 to postnatal day 22 when offspring from both diet groups were weaned and maintained on the CD until adulthood. In vivo NAc DA responses to food anticipation and consumption were measured in a Pavlovian conditioning paradigm using voltammetry in freely moving rats. HF-exposed offspring displayed reduced NAc DA responses to a tone previously paired with the delivery of HF food rewards. In an unconditioned protocol, consumatory NAc DA responses could be isolated, and were similar in HF and control offspring. These data demonstrate that exposure to HF through maternal diet during early development might program behavioral and functional responses associated with mesolimbic DA neurotransmission, thus leading to an increased HF feeding and obesity.


It is now recognized that pre- and postnatal maternal consumption of calorie-dense food increases the offspring’s susceptibility to the development of obesity,1 although the underlying mechanisms are still unclear. Mesolimbic dopamine (DA) neurotransmission, which mediates the rewarding properties of food and food cues, represents a possible candidate. DA function is altered in diet-induced obesity in both humans2, 3, 4 and animals,5, 6, 7, 8 and DA projections develop for a large part postnatally,9 making them susceptible to the ‘organizational effects’ of early diet. Along with other groups,10, 11 we previously demonstrated that exposure of the mother to HF during the last week of gestation and throughout lactation blunted locomotor and nucleus accumbens (NAc) DA responses to amphetamine, and reduced presynaptic expression of DA D2 receptors in adult offspring.12, 13 Behaviorally, these functional changes led to an increase in incentive motivation for HF food pellets, as measured with three reinforcement conditions in an operant conditioning paradigm.12

A large body of evidence indicates that increased NAc DA transmission is necessary to generate the behavioral responses elicited by food and signal anticipation rather than food consumption.14 In the present experiments, we tested the hypothesis that early exposure to HF through maternal milk programs NAc DA responses to food and food cues in the adult offspring. We used in vivo voltammetry in freely moving rats to monitor rapid fluctuations in extracellular NAc DA concentrations during the anticipation and consumption of HF food rewards in adult offspring exposed to HF during early development. We demonstrate that HF offspring display a reduction in their anticipatory, but not consumatory, DA responses to food, suggesting that the increased operant responding to fat pellets in these rats12 is a consequence of maternally programmed DA hypofunction.

Experimental procedures


Female Sprague–Dawley rats (Charles River, Quebec) were placed on powdered diets from Harlan Teklad (Madison, WI, USA). HF (30% fat, 24% carbohydrate, 15% protein, 4.54 kcal g−1, HF) or CD (5% fat, 60% carbohydrate, 15% protein, 3.45 kcal g−1) diet was given from gestation day 13 to postnatal day (PND) 22. Litters were culled to 10 pups, weaned at PND 22 and fed the CD until testing. Animals were housed under controlled conditions of light (12:12 h light:dark cycle), temperature and humidity. The procedures were approved by the Animal Care Committee at McGill University.

Electrode implantation

Recording electrodes consisted of 30 mm Nafion-coated carbon fibers placed in a glass capillary, as previously described.14 Prior to implantation, electrodes were calibrated in vitro. Specificity was tested with ascorbic acid and measured by increasing the concentrations of DA. Only electrodes with a minimum specificity for DA of 1000:1 and a highly linear response to DA (r>0.9997) were implanted. Electrodes aimed at the shell of the NAc (lateral: −1.6 mm, anterior-posterior: +1.6 mm, dorsal-ventral: −7.6 mm from bregma) and Ag/AgCl reference electrodes aimed at the contralateral parietal cortex were implanted under isoflurane anesthesia. Pin connectors were soldered to both the electrodes and inserted into a plastic strip connector anchored to the skull. Electrode placements were confirmed postmortem using the atlas of Paxinos and Watson.15

Electrochemical recordings

Electrochemical recordings were performed as previously described,14 using a computer-controlled high-speed chronoamperometric instrument (FAST16, Quanteon, Lexington, KY, USA). An oxidation potential of +0.55 V (with respect to the reference electrode) was applied to the electrode for 100 ms at a rate of 5 Hz. The amplitude of the oxidation current was digitized and integrated over the last 80 ms of the pulse. Currents were averaged and converted into μM concentrations using the in vitro calibrations. The concentration of DA (μM) at the onset of each tone was used to calculate the mean change in signal (μM) for 10 s prior and 60 s following this timepoint.

Testing procedure

Animals were tested in adulthood (>PND 90) in the dark phase of the light:dark cycle and 3–4 days post surgery. Animals underwent 4 days of conditioning with 15 trials per day. Each trial consisted of a 30-s 90-dB tone. At 30 s, a ‘click’ arose from the food dispenser and a 45-mg HF pellet (dustless precision pellets, 45 mg 35% fat, Bio-Serv, Frenchtown, NJ, USA) was delivered. DA oxidation currents were measured throughout the 60 trials. In the unpaired condition, trial conditions were similar, but the cues did not predict the delivery of the pellet. A variable inter-trial paradigm was used in both conditions.

Reduced anticipatory DA responses to food cues in HF vs control offspring

Mean change in NAc DA signal (μM) on days 2, 3 and 4 of conditioning is illustrated in Figures 1a and b (controls and HF, respectively). In both diet groups, repeated pairing of the compound cue (tone and ‘click’) with the delivery of a food pellet led to an anticipatory DA response. In both diet groups, modest but significant increases in DA were observed during the 30-s tone. The end of the tone, coupled with the ‘click’ of the food dispenser, induced a large rise in DA concentrations with a peak that occurred 2–3 s after the ‘click’. The dropping of the pellet into the food hopper occurred 2 s after the click, which coincides with the feeding onset. Thus, we can attribute the large DA increase observed to an anticipatory rather than a consumatory response. Our results agree with the previous research demonstrating that NAc DA transmission is activated primarily by conditioned cues that reliably predict a positive outcome (that is, receiving or earning food), and that this activation ceases once the expected food is presented and consumed.14 More importantly, our results demonstrate that NAc DA responses to the tone (Figure 1c) and the ‘click’ (Figure 1d) were decreased in HF vs CD offspring on day 4 of conditioning, although no significant differences were observed in earlier days. This effect cannot be attributed to learning deficits, as rats in both diet groups immediately consumed the pellet upon delivery on day 4 of testing.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Mean change in DA signal (μM) on days 2 (triangles), 3 (squares) and 4 (circles) of Pavlovian conditioning in control (a) and HF offspring (b). Timepoints located within the gray-shaded areas correspond to anticipatory responses. Data were analyzed by repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) using session time (70 s) × day of testing. In the control offspring, mean signal change varied as a function of session time (F(69, 840)=2.172, P<0.0001), and between days of testing (F(2, 840)=150.3, P<0.0001). The same was observed in HF offspring (session time effect: F(69, 980)=1.416, P<0.05); day of testing effect: (F(2, 980)=33.65, P<0.0001). Both control and HF animals conditioned to the tone, as revealed by a significant day effect (control: F(2, 852)=150.3, P<0.0001, HF: F(2, 994)=33.65, P<0.0001) when analysis was performed on the 30-s tone alone. Mean DA increase during the tone (c) and following the ‘click’ (d) in control and HF offspring was analyzed using a two-way repeated-measures ANOVA. Mean DA increase was increased across days during the tone (F(2, 26)=8.061, P<0.01) and following the ‘click’ (F(2, 26)=7.15, P<0.01), but no overall diet effects were observed (P>0.05). Bonferroni post hoc analyses reveal that on day 4 of conditioning, HF-exposed offspring show blunted DA responses to the tone and ‘click’ compared with the control offspring (P<0.05). Values represent mean±s.e.m. of seven control and eight HF animals. *P<0.05; **P<0.01; ***P<0.001.

The diminished DA response to the cued presentation and subsequent consumption of HF food rewards in adult offspring exposed to HF during early development is remarkable, as these offspring were only exposed to HF during the preweaning period. This suggests that perinatal and postnatal programming of NAc DA function modified the anticipatory response to food cues, thus potentially influencing the overall food consumption in the paired condition. NAc DA hyporesponsiveness in HF offspring extends to modalities other than food cues, as we previously found reduced locomotor and NAc DA responses to amphetamine.12, 13

Our results parallel the earlier reports in humans2, 3, 4 and rodents5, 6, 7, 8 showing that diet-induced obesity is associated with reduced DA function. Whether this hyporesponsive DA function results from the development of obesity or is a factor predisposing individuals to the development of obesity remains unclear. Our results suggest that maternal diet and the resulting perinatal nutritional environment can program DA function, and that NAc DA hypofunction can occur prior to the development of obesity, as our HF rats were not obese when tested. Furthermore, electrically evoked DA release was also found to be reduced in mesocorticolimbic terminal regions of obesity-prone rats.16 Together, these data support the hypo-sensitivity to the reward hypothesis of obesity, which postulates that in individuals with blunted DA function, the excessive consumption of palatable foods serves to reach a threshold of reward contributed by mesolimbic DA activation.17 The dissociation between anticipatory DA responses and operant behavior towards the same fat rewards12 is interesting, and suggests that in HF offspring, the role of glutamate in modulating operant responses to food in association with DA might be enhanced.18

Similar consumatory DA responses in the unpaired condition between control and HF offspring

On day 4 of testing in the unpaired condition, when the compound cue did not predict the arrival of the food pellet, DA responses to the cue were close to zero in both control and HF offspring (Figure 2a). We found, however, that a DA peak could be consistently observed when animals consumed the fat-enriched pellets. This peak was isolated and 15 data points prior to and following this peak were used for analysis (Figure 2b). No diet group differences were observed in a ‘pure’ consumatory response. Although not directly compared in the present analysis, peak consumatory responses in the unpaired condition were significantly smaller than anticipatory peak responses in the paired condition (0.4 vs 0.2 μM), especially in the control offspring, again demonstrating that NAc DA transmission is activated primarily by conditioned cues that reliably predict a positive outcome.

Figure 2
Figure 2

(a) Mean change in DA signal (μM) on day 4 of testing in control (white) and HF (black) offspring in the unpaired condition, in which the tone did not predict the delivery of a food pellet. Timepoints located within the gray-shaded area correspond to the 30-s tone. No group differences were observed on day 4 of testing. (b) Similar consumatory DA responses (μM) to the consumption of the HF pellets in control (white) and HF (black) offspring in the unpaired condition. A two-way repeated-measures ANOVA showed no diet-related differences in the magnitude of the consumatory DA peak, although a significant time effect was observed (F(30, 210)=8.122, P<0.0001). Values represent mean±s.e.m. of six animals.


Our results indicate that exposure to HF during a critical period of development programs mesolimbic DA function in that adult offspring originating from mothers exposed to HF during the last week of gestation and throughout lactation display reduced anticipatory NAc DA responses to food cues, but no differences in consumatory DA responses. These changes in DA neurotransmission occurred prior to the development of obesity in these animals, suggesting that DA hypofunction programmed in early life might have a causal role in behavioral adaptations geared towards obesity. Our data provide strong evidence for the long-term nutritional ‘programming’ of the rewarding properties of fat-enriched rewards and associated mesolimbic DA function. This might lead to alterations in ingestive behavior that favor the development of obesity.


  1. 1.

    . Metabolic imprinting: critical impact of the perinatal environment on the regulation of energy homeostasis. Philos Trans Royal Soc Lond B Biol Sci 2006; 361: 1107–1121.

  2. 2.

    , , , , . Relation of reward from food intake and anticipated food intake to obesity: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. J Abnorm Psychol 2008; 117: 924–935.

  3. 3.

    , , , , , et al. Anorexia nervosa and obesity are associated with opposite brain reward response. Neuropsychopharmacology 2012; 37: 2031–2046.

  4. 4.

    , , , . Reduced nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus activation to a pleasant taste is associated with obesity in older adults. Brain Res 2011; 1386: 109–117.

  5. 5.

    , , , , , et al. Exposure to elevated levels of dietary fat attenuates psychostimulant reward and mesolimbic dopamine turnover in the rat. Behav Neurosci 2008; 122: 1257–1263.

  6. 6.

    , , , , , . Deficits in mesolimbic dopamine neurotransmission in rat dietary obesity. Neuroscience 2009; 159: 1193–1199.

  7. 7.

    , , , , , . High-fat diet decreases tyrosine hydroxylase mRNA expression irrespective of obesity susceptibility in mice. Brain Res 2009; 1268: 181–189.

  8. 8.

    , . Diet-induced obesity promotes depressive-like behaviour that is associated with neural adaptations in brain reward circuitry. Int J Obes 2012. e-pub ahead of print 17 April 2012; doi.10.1038/ijo.2012.48.

  9. 9.

    , , , , . Postnatal development of the dopaminergic system of the striatum in the rat. Neuroscience 2002; 110: 245–256.

  10. 10.

    , , . Early life exposure to a high fat diet promotes long-term changes in dietary preferences and central reward signaling. Neuroscience 2009; 162: 924–932.

  11. 11.

    , , , , . Maternal high-fat diet alters methylation and gene expression of dopamine and opioid-related genes. Endocrinology 2010; 151: 4756–4764.

  12. 12.

    , , , , , . Maternal high-fat intake alters presynaptic regulation of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and increases motivation for fat rewards in the offspring. Neuroscience 2010; 176: 225–236.

  13. 13.

    , , , , , . Maternal high fat diet during the perinatal period alters mesocorticolimbic dopamine in the adult rat offspring: reduction on the behavioral responses to repeated amphetamine administration. Psychopharmacology 2008; 197: 83–94.

  14. 14.

    , . Changes in nucleus accumbens dopamine transmission associated with fixed- and variable-time schedule-induced feeding. Eur J Neurosci 2008; 27: 2714–2723.

  15. 15.

    , . The Rat Brain in Stereotaxic Coordinates. 4th edn. Academic Press: Boston, 1998.

  16. 16.

    , , , , , et al. Evidence for defective mesolimbic dopamine exocytosis in obesity-prone rats. FASEB J 2008; 22: 2740–2746.

  17. 17.

    , , . Food reward, hyperphagia, and obesity. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 2011; 300: R1266–R1277.

  18. 18.

    , . Discrete neurochemical coding of distinguishable motivational processes: insights from nucleus accumbens control of feeding. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 2007; 191: 439–459.

Download references


This research was supported by a grant from CIHR (no. 84299) to C-DW and AG. LN is a recipient of a CIHR Canada Graduate Scholarship.

Author information


  1. Department of Psychiatry and Integrated Program in Neuroscience, Neuroscience Division, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    • L Naef
    • , L Moquin
    • , A Gratton
    •  & C-D Walker


  1. Search for L Naef in:

  2. Search for L Moquin in:

  3. Search for A Gratton in:

  4. Search for C-D Walker in:

Competing interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C-D Walker.

About this article

Publication history