An interesting article in the latest PNAS from the University of New Mexico and McEwen's laboratory at Rockefeller.... I can't say it any better than the (slightly edited) abstract does:
Mildly stressful early life experiences can potentially impact a broad range of social, cognitive, and physiological functions in humans, nonhuman primates, and rodents. Recent rodent studies favor a maternal-mediation hypothesis that considers maternal-care differences induced by neonatal stimulation as the cause of individual differences in offspring development. Using neonatal novelty exposure, a neonatal stimulation paradigm that dissociates maternal individual differences from a direct stimulation effect on the offspring, Tang et al. investigated the effect of early exposures to novelty on a diverse range of psychological functions using several assessment paradigms. Pups that received brief neonatal novelty exposures away from the home environment showed enhancement in spatial working memory, social competition, and corticosterone response to surprise during adulthood compared with their home-staying siblings. These functional enhancements in novelty-exposed rats occurred despite evidence that maternal care was directed preferentially toward home-staying instead of novelty-exposed pups, indicating that greater maternal care is neither necessary nor sufficient for these early stimulation-induced functional enhancements. The authors suggest a unifying maternal-modulation hypothesis, which distinguishes itself from the maternal-mediation hypothesis in that (i) neonatal stimulation can have direct effects on pups, cumulatively leading to long-term improvement in adult offspring; and (ii) maternal behavior can attenuate or potentiate these effects, thereby decreasing or increasing this long-term functional improvement.