Estrogen in prefrontal cortex blocks stress-induced cognitive impairments in female rats.
Converging evidence suggests that females and males show different responses to stress; however, little is known about the mechanism underlying the sexually dimorphic effects of stress. In this study, we found that young female rats exposed to 1 week of repeated restraint stress show no negative effects on temporal order recognition memory (TORM), a cognitive process controlled by the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which was contrary to the impairment in TORM observed in stressed males. Concomitantly, normal glutamatergic transmission and glutamate receptor surface expression in PFC pyramidal neurons were found in repeatedly stressed females, in contrast to the significant reduction seen in stressed males. The detrimental effects of repeated stress on TORM and glutamate receptors were unmasked in stressed females when estrogen receptors were inhibited or knocked down in PFC, and were prevented in stressed males with the administration of estradiol. Blocking aromatase, the enzyme for the biosynthesis of estrogen, revealed the stress-induced glutamatergic deficits and memory impairment in females, and the level of aromatase was significantly higher in the PFC of females than in males. These results suggest that estrogen protects against the detrimental effects of repeated stress on glutamatergic transmission and PFC-dependent cognition, which may underlie the stress resilience of females.