Sex differences and opposite effects of stress on dendritic spine density in the male versus female hippocampus

J Neurosci. 2001 Aug 15;21(16):6292-7. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.21-16-06292.2001.


Dendritic spines are postsynaptic sites of excitatory input in the mammalian nervous system. Despite much information about their structure, their functional significance remains unknown. It has been reported that females in proestrus, when estrogen levels are elevated, have a greater density of apical dendritic spines on pyramidal neurons in area CA1 of the hippocampus than females in other stages of estrous (Woolley et al., 1990). Here we replicate these findings and in addition, show that females in proestrus have a greater density of spines in area CA1 of the hippocampus than males. Moreover, this sex difference in spine density is affected in opposite directions by stressful experience. In response to one acute stressful event of intermittent tailshocks, spine density was enhanced in the male hippocampus but reduced in the female hippocampus. The decrease in the female was observed for those that were stressed during diestrus 2 and perfused 24 hr later during proestrus. The opposing effects of stress were not evident immediately after the stressor but rather occurred within 24 hr and were evident on apical and to a lesser extent on basal dendrites of pyramidal cells in area CA1. Neither sex nor stress affected spine density on pyramidal neurons in somatosensory cortex. Sex differences in hippocampal spine density correlated with sex hormones, estradiol and testosterone, whereas stress effects on spine density were not directly associated with differences in the stress hormones, glucocorticoids. In summary, males and females have different levels of dendritic spine density in the hippocampus under unstressed conditions, and their neuronal anatomy can respond in opposite directions to the same stressful event.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Surface Extensions / ultrastructure*
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Dendrites / ultrastructure
  • Diestrus
  • Electroshock
  • Estradiol / blood
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / pathology*
  • Male
  • Proestrus
  • Pyramidal Cells / pathology
  • Pyramidal Cells / ultrastructure
  • Radioimmunoassay
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / pathology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / ultrastructure
  • Stress, Physiological / blood
  • Stress, Physiological / pathology*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology
  • Testosterone / blood


  • Testosterone
  • Estradiol
  • Corticosterone