Environmentally enriched pigs have transcriptional profiles consistent with neuroprotective effects and reduced microglial activity

Brown, S., Bush, S., Summers, K., Hume, D. & Lawrence, A. B.
Behavioural Brain Research
Journal publication date: 

Environmental enrichment (EE) is widely used to study the effects of external factors on brain development, function and health in rodent models, but very little is known of the effects of EE on the brain in a large animal model such as the pig. Twenty-four young pigs (aged 5 weeks at start of study, 1:1 male: female ratio) were housed in environmentally enriched (EE) pens and provided with additional enrichment stimulation (a bag filled with straw) once daily. Litter, weight and sex matched controls n= (24) were housed in barren (B) conditions. Behaviour was recorded on alternate days from study day 10. After 21 days, RNA-sequencing of the frontal cortex of male piglets culled one hour after the enrichment stimulation, but not those at 4 hours after stimulation, showed upregulation of genes involved in neuronal activity and synaptic plasticity in the EE compared to the B condition. This result is mirrored in the behavioural response to the stimulation which showed a peak in activity around the 1 hour time-point. By contrast, EE piglets displayed a signature consistent with a relative decrease in microglial activity compared to those in the B condition. These results confirm those from rodents, suggesting that EE may also confer neuronal health benefits in large mammal models, through a potential relative reduction in neuroinflammatory process and increase in neuroprotection driven by an enrichment-induced increase in behavioural activity.