Chronic stress and hippocampal dendritic complexity: Methodological and functional considerations

Cheryl Conrad, J. Bryce Ortiz, Jessica M. Judd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


The current understanding of how chronic stress impacts hippocampal dendritic arbor complexity and the subsequent relationship to hippocampal-dependent spatial memory is reviewed. A surge in reports investigating hippocampal dendritic morphology is occurring, but with wide variations in methodological detail being reported. Consequently, this review systematically outlines the basic neuroanatomy of relevant hippocampal features to help clarify how chronic stress or glucocorticoids impact hippocampal dendritic complexity and how these changes occur in parallel with spatial cognition. Chronic stress often leads to hippocampal CA3 apical dendritic retraction first with other hippocampal regions (CA3 basal dendrites, CA1, dentate gyrus, DG) showing dendritic retraction when chronic stress is sufficiently robust or long lasting. The stress-induced reduction in hippocampal CA3 apical dendritic arbor complexity often coincides with impaired hippocampal function, such as spatial learning and memory. Yet, when chronic stress ends and a post-stress recovery period ensues, the atrophied dendritic arbors and poor spatial abilities often improve. However, this process differs from a simple reversal of chronic stress-induced deficits. Recent reports suggest that this return to baseline-like functioning is uniquely different from non-stressed controls, emphasizing the need for further studies to enhance our understanding of how a history of stress subsequently alters an organism's spatial abilities. To provide a consistent framework for future studies, this review concludes with an outline for a quick and easy reference on points to consider when planning chronic stress studies with the goal of measuring hippocampal dendritic complexity and spatial ability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
StateAccepted/In press - Aug 1 2016


  • CA3
  • Dendrites
  • Glucocorticoid
  • Hippocampus
  • Recovery
  • Spatial memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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