The ontogeny of salt hunger in the rat

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Salt hunger is the behaviour of an animal suffering sodium deficiency. It is characterised by an increased motivation to seek and ingest sodium, and the ability to distinguish between sodium and other salts. Here I review the development of salt hunger in the rat. Salt hunger develops rapidly between birth and weaning. It can first be demonstrated 72 h postnatally when an intracerebroventricular injection of renin elicits greater swallowing of NaCl solution than water and greater mouthing of solid fragments of NaCl than of an artificial sweetener. However, sodium deficit per se cannot arouse the hunger at this age, and first elicits increased intake of NaCl only at 12 days-of-age. The next landmark is at 17 days-of-age when the hormonal synergy of aldosterone and central angiotensin II first elicits salt hunger, as it does in the adult. The specificity of the hunger for the sodium ion also develops postnatally: the 72 h-old sodium-hungry neonate does not distinguish between NaCl and other mono- and di-valent chloride salts but, increasingly during development, the sodium hungry pup distinguishes salts and by weaning age NaCl is clearly preferred to other salts almost as it is in adults. Early development may also be a sensitive period for determining lifelong preferences, and indeed, acute perinatal sodium depletion induces a lifelong enhancement of salt intake. Taken together, these findings demonstrate how a behaviour develops precociously and how, when the behaviour becomes important at weaning, the rat pup is competent to meet its sodium requirements, and may be adapted to anticipate sodium deficit.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)649-659
Number of pages11
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1999

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This investigation was inspired by Alan Epstein. It was supported by USA–Israel Binational Foundation grant #89-00261 to Micah Leshem, Alan Epstein, and Eliot Stellar. I am indebted to Katharina Titkemeyer for her generous help in the preparation of this manuscript.


  • Appetite
  • Development
  • Ontogeny
  • Rat pups
  • Renin
  • Salt
  • Sodium
  • Taste

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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