Chronic stress and sex differences on the recall of fear conditioning and extinction

Sarah E. Baran, Charles E. Armstrong, Danielle C. Niren, Jeffery J. Hanna, Cheryl Conrad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

158 Scopus citations


Chronic stress effects and sex differences were examined on conditioned fear extinction. Male and female Sprague-Dawley rats were chronically stressed by restraint (6 h/d/21 d), conditioned to tone and footshock, followed by extinction after 1 h and 24 h delays. Chronic stress impaired the recall of fear extinction in males, as evidenced by high freezing to tone after the 24 h delay despite exposure to the previous 1 h delay extinction trials, and this effect was not due to ceiling effects from overtraining during conditioning. In contrast, chronic stress attenuated the recall of fear conditioning acquisition in females, regardless of exposure to the 1 h extinction exposure. Since freezing to tone was reinstated following unsignalled footshocks, the deficit in the stressed rats reflected impaired recall rather than impaired consolidation. Sex differences in fear conditioning and extinction were observed in nonstressed controls as well, with control females resisting extinction to tone. Analysis of contextual freezing showed that all groups (control, stress, male, female) increased freezing immediately after the first tone extinction trial, demonstrating contextual discrimination. These findings show that chronic stress and sex interact to influence fear conditioning, with chronic stress impairing the recall of delayed fear extinction in males to implicate the medial prefrontal cortex, disrupting the recall of the fear conditioning acquisition in females to implicate the amygdala, and nonstressed controls exhibiting sex differences in fear conditioning and extinction, which may involve the amygdala and/or corticosterone levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)323-332
Number of pages10
JournalNeurobiology of Learning and Memory
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2009


  • Extinction
  • Fear conditioning
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Sex difference
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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