Novelty-evoked activity in open field predicts susceptibility to helpless behavior

Abstract Learned helplessness in animals has been used to model disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but there is a lack of knowledge concerning which individual behavioral characteristics at baseline can predict helpless behavior after exposure to inescapable stress. The first aim of this study was to determine behavioral predictors of helplessness using the novel and familiar open-field tests, sucrose consumption, and passive harm-avoidance tasks before learned helplessness training and testing. Individual differences in physiologic responses to restraint stress were also assessed. A cluster analysis of escape latencies from helplessness testing supported the division of the sample population of Holtzman rats into approximately 50% helpless and 50% non-helpless. Linear regression analyses further revealed that increased reactivity to the novel environment, but not general activity or habituation, predicted susceptibility to learned helplessness. During restraint stress there were no mean differences in heart rate, heart rate variability, and plasma corticosterone between helpless and non-helpless rats; however, a lower heart rate during stress was associated with higher activity levels during exploration. Our most important finding was that by using an innocuous screening tool such as the novel and familiar open-field tests, it was possible to identify subjects that were susceptible to learned helplessness.