Early developmental processes, such as metabolic programming, can provide cues to an organism, which allow it to make modifications that are predicted to be beneficial for survival. Similarly, social play has a multifaceted role in promoting survival and fitness of animals. Play is a complex behavior that is greatly influenced by motivational and reward circuits, as well as the energy reserves and metabolism of an organism. This study examined the association between metabolic programming and juvenile play behavior in an effort to further elucidate insight into the consequences that early adaptions have on developmental trajectories. The study also examined changes in expression of four genes (Drd2, IGF1, Opa1, and OxyR) in the prefrontal cortex known to play significant roles in reward, bioenergetics, and social-emotional functioning. Using four distinct variations in developmental programming (high-fat diet, caloric restriction, exercise, or high-fat diet combined with exercise), we found that dietary programming (high-fat diet vs. caloric restriction) had the greatest impact on play behavior and gene expression. However, exercise also induced changes in both measures. This study demonstrates that metabolic programming can alter neural circuits and bioenergetics involved in play behavior, thus providing new insights into mechanisms that allow programming to influence the evolutionary success of an organism.

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