Human and animal studies support the involvement of neuropeptide Y (NPY) in the pathophysiology of depression. Thus, hippocampal NPY-LI is decreased in genetic models of depression, the Flinders Sensitive Line and Fawn Hooded rats. Maternal "deprivation" has been identified as one risk factor in the development of psychopathology, including depression in adulthood. In view of these findings we hypothesized that brain NPY may also be decreased in an animal model of early life maternal deprivation. To test this hypothesis, male and female Sprague-Dawley rats were maternally separated (MS) 6 h/day or briefly handled from postnatal day 2 (PN2) to PN6 and from PN9 to PN13. At 12 weeks of age the rats were sacrificed, the brains dissected and NPY-LI measured by radioimmunoassay. MS rats had lower NPY-LI in the hippocampus. NPY-LI was also lower in female compared to male rats in hippocampus. Lastly, NPY-LI was increased in the hypothalamus of both male and female MS rats. These findings support the hypothesis that altered NPY in the limbic region is a common denominator of several models of depression and might be a trait marker of vulnerability to affective disorders.