Distinctive stress effects on learning during puberty

Horm Behav. 2005 Aug;48(2):163-71. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2005.02.008.


Puberty is a time of significant change in preparation for adulthood. Here, we examined how stressful experience affects cognitive and related hormonal responses in male and female rats prior to, during and after puberty. Groups were exposed to an acute stressor of brief periodic tailshocks and tested 24 h later in an associative memory task of trace eyeblink conditioning. Exposure to the stressor did not alter conditioning in males or females prior to puberty but enhanced conditioning in both males and females during puberty. The enhancement occurred in pubescent females irrespective of the estrous cycle. In adulthood, sex differences in trace conditioning and the response to stress emerged: females outperformed males under unstressed conditions, but after stressor exposure, trace conditioning in females was impaired whereas that in males was enhanced. These differences were not related to changes in gross motor activity or other nonspecific measures of performance. The effects of acute stress on corticosterone, estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone were also measured. Stressor exposure increased the concentration of corticosterone in all age groups, although sex differences were only evident in adults. All reproductive hormones except estradiol increased with age in a predictable and sex dependent fashion and none were affected by stressor exposure. Estradiol decreased in male rats across age, and remained stable for female rats. Together, these data indicate that males and female respond similarly to learning opportunities and stressful experience before and during puberty; it is in adulthood that sex differences and the opposite responses to stress arise.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aging / psychology
  • Animals
  • Blinking / physiology
  • Conditioning, Classical / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Estrogens / pharmacology
  • Estrous Cycle / physiology
  • Female
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / drug effects
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Progesterone / pharmacology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sexual Maturation / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Testosterone / pharmacology
  • Vagina / cytology
  • Vagina / drug effects


  • Estrogens
  • Testosterone
  • Progesterone