It’s long been debated whether men or women are better at dealing with stress. Though much evidence has shown that the sexes tend to handle stressors differently, there has been less to suggest whether males or females are more resilient when times get tough.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo this week tip the stress-resilience scales in females’ favor, showing that estrogen may be a key factor in how women keep their cool.

Writing in Molecular Psychiatry, Zhen Yan, Ph.D., and her colleagues show that young female rats exposed to one week of repeated restraint stress showed no negative effects on temporal order recognition memory (TORM)—a cognitive process controlled by the prefrontal cortex. However, their male counterparts showed TORM impairment when stressed in the same way.

At the same time, Dr. Yan’s team found stressed female rats’ prefrontal cortex pyramidal neurons showed normal glutamatergic transmission and glutamate receptor surface expression, while the male rats under pressure showed reduced transmission and expression of such.

Further, the researchers show that when their estrogen receptors were inhibited or knocked down in the same region of the brain, female mice showed detrimental effects of stress. When male mice were administered the female sex hormone estradiol, they showed more resilience when stressed.

This study, Dr. Yan said, points to a “molecular mechanism underlying gender-specific effects of stress.”

Further, she added: “We still found the protective effect of estrogen in female rats whose ovaries were removed,” suggesting to the team that “it might be estrogen produced in the brain that protects against the detrimental effects of stress.”

Dr. Yan pointed to the therapeutic potential unearthed by this animal model study. “If we could find compounds similar to estrogen that could be administered without causing hormonal side effects, they could prove to be a very effective treatment for stress-related problems in males,” she said in a statement.

“Estrogen protects against the detrimental effects of repeated stress on glutamatergic transmission and cognition” appeared online in Molecular Psychiatry July 9.

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