Differential effects of stress on microglial cell activation in male and female medial prefrontal cortex

Brain Behav Immun. 2016 Feb;52:88-97. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2015.10.003. Epub 2015 Oct 9.


Susceptibility to stress-linked psychological disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, differs between men and women. Dysfunction of medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) has been implicated in many of these disorders. Chronic stress affects mPFC in a sex-dependent manner, differentially remodeling dendritic morphology and disrupting prefrontally mediated behaviors in males and females. Chronic restraint stress induces microglial activation, reflected in altered microglial morphology and immune factor expression, in mPFC in male rats. Unstressed females exhibit increased microglial ramification in several brain regions compared to males, suggesting both heightened basal activation and a potential for sex-dependent effects of stress on microglial activation. Therefore, we assessed microglial density and ramification in the prelimbic region of mPFC, and immune-associated genes in dorsal mPFC in male and female rats following acute or chronic restraint stress. Control rats were left unstressed. On the final day of restraint, brains were collected for either qPCR or visualization of microglia using Iba-1 immunohistochemistry. Microglia in mPFC were classified as ramified, primed, reactive, or amoeboid, and counted stereologically. Expression of microglia-associated genes (MHCII, CD40, IL6, CX3CL1, and CX3CR1) was also assessed using qPCR. Unstressed females showed a greater proportion of primed to ramified microglia relative to males, alongside heightened CX3CL1-CX3CR1 expression. Acute and chronic restraint stress reduced the proportion of primed to ramified microglia and microglial CD40 expression in females, but did not significantly alter microglial activation in males. This sex difference in microglial activation could contribute to the differential effects of stress on mPFC structure and function in males versus females.

Keywords: Acute stress; Chronic stress; Microglia; Microglial morphology; Prefrontal cortex; Sex differences.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Weight
  • Dendrites / metabolism
  • Female
  • Male
  • Microglia / cytology
  • Microglia / immunology
  • Microglia / metabolism*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / cytology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / immunology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Sex Factors
  • Stress, Physiological / immunology
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / immunology
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*