Stress increases associative learning and the density of dendritic spines in the hippocampus of male rats. In contrast, exposure to the same stressor impairs associative learning and reduces spine density in females. These effects in females are most evident when they are in the proestrus phase of the estrous cycle. An injection of testosterone at the time of birth masculinizes the female brain. In adulthood, masculinized females respond like males do to stress, i.e. they learn better. Here, we hypothesized that stress would increase spine densities on pyramidal neurons in area CA1 of the hippocampus of masculinized females, because stress enhances learning ability in both males and masculinized females. To test this, we used Golgi impregnation to stain tissue from masculinized and cycling females that were exposed to an acute stressor and sacrificed 1 day later. There was a significant interaction between stressor exposure and testosterone treatment at birth (p < 0.001). In general, cycling females that were stressed tended to possess fewer spines on apical and basal dendrites in the CA1 area of the hippocampus, whereas the masculinized females possessed significantly more spines after the stressor. These findings underscore the plastic nature of dendritic spines. They suggest that their response to stress in adulthood is organized by the presence of testosterone during very early development. Such a process may represent a mechanism for altering learning abilities after an acute traumatic experience.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Masculinized females
- Organizational effects of hormones