Restraint stress has been shown to elicit numerous effects on hippocampal function and neuronal morphology, as well as to induce dendritic remodeling in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). However, the effects of acute restraint stress on PFC cognitive function have not been investigated, despite substantial evidence that the PFC malfunctions in many stress-related disorders.
The present study examined the effects of restraint stress on PFC function in both male rats and cycling female rats in either the proestrus (high estrogen) or estrus (low estrogen) phase of the estrus cycle. Animals were restrained for 60 or 120 minutes and then tested on spatial delayed alternation, a PFC-mediated task. Performance after stress was compared to performance on a different day under no-stress conditions, and analyzed using analysis of variance (ANOVA).
Sixty minutes of restraint impaired only females in proestrus, while 120 minutes of restraint produced significant impairments in all animals. Increases in task completion times did not affect performance.
These results demonstrate an interaction between hormonal status and cognitive response to stress in female rats, with high estrogen levels being associated with amplified sensitivity to stress. This effect has been previously observed after administration of a pharmacological stressor (the benzodiazepine inverse agonist FG7142), and results from both studies may be relevant to the increased prevalence of stress-related disorders, such as major depressive disorder, in cycling women. Overall, the results show that restraint stress has important effects on the cognitive functions of the PFC, and that hormonal influences in the PFC are an important area for future research.