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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 Oct 15;99(21):13955-60. Epub 2002 Oct 1.

Testosterone in utero and at birth dictates how stressful experience will affect learning in adulthood.

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Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8020, USA.


Exposure to an acute stressful event can enhance learning in male rats, whereas exposure to the same event dramatically impairs performance in females. Here we tested whether the presence of sex hormones during early development organizes these opposite effects of stress on learning in males vs. females. In the first experiment, males were castrated at birth whereas females were injected with testosterone. Rats were trained as adults on the hippocampal-dependent learning task of trace eyeblink conditioning. Performance in adult males that had been castrated at birth was still enhanced by exposure to an acute stressful experience. However, adult females injected with testosterone at birth responded in the opposite direction, i.e., exposure to the stressor that typically reduces performance instead enhanced their levels of conditioning. In the second experiment, exposure to testosterone was manipulated in utero by injecting pregnant females with a testosterone antagonist. After foster rearing, adult offspring were exposed to the stressor and trained on the hippocampal-dependent learning task of trace conditioning. Although performance in adult females was unaffected by antagonizing testosterone in utero, i.e., stress still reduced performance, the enhancement of conditioning after stress in adult males was prevented. Thus, the presence of sex hormones during gestation and development organizes whether and how acute stressful experience will affect the ability to acquire new information in adulthood. As with many sexual behaviors, these cognitive responses to stress appear to be masculinized by exposure to testosterone and feminized by its absence during very early development.

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