Sexually dimorphic effects of prenatal stress on cognition, hormonal responses, and central neurotransmitters

Endocrinology. 2004 Aug;145(8):3778-87. doi: 10.1210/en.2003-1759. Epub 2004 May 13.


Exposure to stress during gestation results in physiological and behavioral alterations that persist into adulthood. This study examined the effects of prenatal stress on the postnatal expression of sexually differentiated cognitive, hormonal, and neurochemical profiles in male and female rats. Pregnant dams were subjected to restraint stress three times daily for 45 min during d 14-21 of pregnancy. The offspring of control and prenatally stressed dams were tested for anxiety-related and cognitive behaviors, stress and gonadal steroid hormone levels, as well as monoamines and metabolite levels in selected brain regions. Postnatal testosterone levels (measured at 1 and 5 d) did not differ between controls and prenatally stressed animals. In adulthood, the serum corticosterone response to stress was attenuated in prenatally stressed females, eliminating the sex difference normally observed in this parameter. Prenatally stressed females exhibited higher anxiety levels, evidenced by longer open field entry latencies. Prenatal stress had no effect on object recognition memory, but eliminated the advantage normally seen in the male performance of a spatial memory task. Neurochemical profiles of prenatally stressed females were altered toward the masculine phenotype in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. Thus, prenatal stress altered subsequent cognitive, endocrine, and neurochemical responses in a sex-specific manner. These data reinforce the view that prenatal stress affects multiple aspects of brain development, interfering with the expression of normal behavioral, neuroendocrine, and neurochemical sex differences. These data have implications for the effects of prenatal stress on the development of sexually dimorphic endocrine and neurological disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Chemistry*
  • Cognition*
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Female
  • Male
  • Maze Learning
  • Motor Activity
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / analysis*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Testosterone / blood
  • Weight Gain


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Testosterone
  • Corticosterone