Sex differences in response to kainic acid and estradiol in the hippocampus of newborn rats

Neuroscience. 2003;116(2):383-91. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4522(02)00716-9.


Premature and full-term human infants are at considerable risk of excitotoxic-mediated brain damage due to hypoxia-ischemia, infection or other trauma. Glutamate receptor activation is a major source of excitoxicity in the adult and developing brain, and the hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to damage. The seven-day-old rat is a widely used model of pediatric brain damage, in large part due to the relative insensitivity of the brain to exogenous glutamate treatment prior to this age. We have reexamined the possible role of glutamate in pediatric brain damage in the newborn rat using kainic acid treatment and attending to the sex of the animal as well as the effects of pretreatment with the gonadal steroid estradiol. Consistent with previous studies, we found no evidence of damage 7 days posttreatment in the CA1 region of the hippocampus in males or females. There was also little to no damage in the CA2/3 or dentate gyrus of males. In females, however, kainic-acid treatment induced substantial damage in the dentate gyrus and moderate damage in CA2/3, as assessed by neuron number and regional volume. Pretreatment with estradiol was protective against kainic acid-induced damage in females but was permissive for damage in the dentate gyrus of males. Estradiol treatment in the absence of kainic acid treatment was also neuroprotective in females in that it increased neuron number and volume throughout the hippocampal formation, suggesting that the basis of the sex difference observed in hippocampal volume was hormonally mediated. There was no effect of exogenous estradiol given to males in the absence of kainic acid. We conclude that the newborn female rat brain, but not the male, is sensitive to glutamate-mediated toxicity and that gonadal steroids play a complex role in both naturally occurring sex differences in hippocampal volume and response to injury.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Cell Count
  • Estradiol / pharmacology*
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / cytology
  • Hippocampus / drug effects*
  • Hippocampus / growth & development
  • Kainic Acid / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sex Characteristics*


  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists
  • Estradiol
  • Kainic Acid