Relevance of stress and female sex hormones for emotion and cognition

Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2012 Jul;32(5):725-35. doi: 10.1007/s10571-011-9774-2. Epub 2011 Nov 24.


There are clear sex differences in incidence and onset of stress-related and other psychiatric disorders in humans. Yet, rodent models for psychiatric disorders are predominantly based on male animals. The strongest argument for not using female rodents is their estrous cycle and the fluctuating sex hormones per phase which multiplies the number of animals to be tested. Here, we will discuss studies focused on sex differences in emotionality and cognitive abilities in experimental conditions with and without stress. First, female sex hormones such as estrogens and progesterone affect emotions and cognition, contributing to sex differences in behavior. Second, females respond differently to stress than males which might be related to the phase of the estrous cycle. For example, female rats and mice express less anxiety than males in a novel environment. Proestrus females are less anxious than females in the other estrous phases. Third, males perform in spatial tasks superior to females. However, while stress impairs spatial memory in males, females improve their spatial abilities, depending on the task and kind of stressor. We conclude that the differences in emotion, cognition and responses to stress between males and females over the different phases of the estrous cycle should be used in animal models for stress-related psychiatric disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Receptors, Steroid / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*


  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Receptors, Steroid