Exposure to chronic predictable stress, such as restraint, can affect performance on spatial memory tasks and these effects have been shown to be sex-specific in rats. It is not known whether unpredictable stress has similar sex-specific effects on spatial memory and whether those effects are present after the stress procedure has ended. Therefore, the current study tested male and female rats in the Morris water maze either immediately or 3 weeks following exposure to 10 days of unpredictable stress (CUS). Male and female rats were exposed to 10 days of stressors that varied by type and time of stressor application. Exposure to CUS decreased the distance swam to locate the hidden platform during acquisition training in the water maze for female but not male rats. Overall, male rats performed better than female rats during the acquisition, probe and matching to place trials. These effects were observed when assessing spatial memory performance immediately or 3 weeks following the last stressor. Plasma corticosterone levels followed the behavioral differences during the acquisition trials in that control female rats had increased basal and swim-stimulated corticosterone levels compared to CUS female rats and control male rats. These data demonstrate that unpredictable stress influences performance on the water maze in a sex-specific manner, which parallel plasma corticosterone levels. The improved performance of female rats following CUS exposure was present 3 weeks after the termination of the stress procedures, suggesting that stress may have lasting effects on underlying neural systems.
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