Unexpected Role of Physiological Estrogen in Acute Stress-Induced Memory Deficits

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Stress may promote emotional and cognitive disturbances, which differ by sex. Adverse outcomes, including memory disturbances, are typically observed following chronic stress, but are now being recognized also after short events, including mass shootings, assault, or natural disasters, events that consist of concurrent multiple acute stresses (MAS). Prior work has established profound and enduring effects of MAS on memory in males. Here we examined the effects of MAS on female mice and probed the role of hormonal fluctuations during the estrous cycle on MAS-induced memory problems and the underlying brain network and cellular mechanisms. Female mice were impacted by MAS in an estrous cycle-dependent manner: MAS impaired hippocampus-dependent spatial memory in early-proestrous mice, characterized by high levels of estradiol, whereas memory of mice stressed during estrus (low estradiol) was spared. As spatial memory requires an intact dorsal hippocampal CA1, we examined synaptic integrity in mice stressed at different cycle phases and found a congruence of dendritic spine density and spatial memory deficits, with reduced spine density only in mice stressed during high estradiol cycle phases. Assessing MAS-induced activation of brain networks interconnected with hippocampus, we identified differential estrous cycle-dependent activation of memory- and stress-related regions, including the amygdala. Network analyses of the cross-correlation of fos expression among these regions uncovered functional connectivity that differentiated impaired mice from those not impaired by MAS. In conclusion, the estrous cycle modulates the impact of MAS on spatial memory, and fluctuating physiological levels of sex hormones may contribute to this effect.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Effects of stress on brain functions, including memory, are profound and sex-dependent. Acute stressors occurring simultaneously result in spatial memory impairments in males, but effects on females are unknown. Here we identified estrous cycle-dependent effects of such stresses on memory in females. Surprisingly, females with higher physiological estradiol experienced stress-induced memory impairment and a loss of underlying synapses. Memory- and stress-responsive brain regions interconnected with hippocampus were differentially activated across high and low estradiol mice, and predicted memory impairment. Thus, at functional, network, and cellular levels, physiological estradiol influences the effects of stress on memory in females, providing insight into mechanisms of prominent sex differences in stress-related memory disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

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