Estrogen in the Brain Facilitates Better Stress Management

A study from the University at Buffalo has documented evidence as to why females deal with stress better than males. The research built upon previous work on stress, which found that ongoing stress can affect working memory, decision-making, and emotional regulation in males.

In this study, researchers exposed both male and female rats to periodic physical restraint stress over the course of a week. The male rats exhibited impairment to their short-term memory, but the female rats’ short-term memory abilities remained constant, despite exposure to stress.

More importantly, this experiment yielded data about the neurological causes of stress. Previous research by the same team, lead by Zehn Yan, PhD, professor in physiology and biophysics and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, found that the negative effects of stress can be traced to the glutamate receptor found in the prefrontal cortex. The glutamate receptor, which plays a role in working memory, attention, emotional regulation, and other “executive” processes, was altered when the male rates underwent stressful situations. However, the current study found that the glutamate receptor was intact in the brains of female rats, even after experiencing stress.

Upon finding that the female rats were not perturbed by the stressor as the male rats were, the researchers manipulated the amount of estrogen produced in the brain, which resulted in the males responding to stress more like the females had and vice versa. Dr. Yan commented, “When estrogen signaling in the brains of females was blocked, stress exhibited detrimental effects on them. When estrogen signaling was activated in males, the detrimental effects of stress were blocked.”

Furthermore, the researchers found that estrogen safeguarded the females from stress even in rats whose ovaries had been removed, which suggests that the brain is able to produce estrogen. The researchers went on to find that there is, in fact, an enzyme in the brain that produces an estrogen hormone and that contributes to female resilience to stress. This research could yield insights for stress management in humans.

This study is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

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