Chronic stress- and sex-specific neuromorphological and functional changes in limbic structures

Katie J. McLaughlin, Sarah E. Baran, Cheryl Conrad

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

135 Scopus citations


Chronic stress produces sex-specific neuromorphological changes in a variety of brain regions, which likely contribute to the gender differences observed in stress-related illnesses and cognitive ability. Here, we review the literature investigating the relationship between chronic stress and sex differences on brain plasticity and function, with an emphasis on morphological changes in dendritic arborization and spines in the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala. These brain structures are highly interconnected and sensitive to stress and gonadal hormones, and influence a variety of cognitive abilities. Although much less work has been published using female subjects than with male subjects, the findings suggest that the relationship between brain morphology and function is very different between the sexes. After reviewing the literature, we present a model showing how chronic stress influences the morphology of these brain regions and changes the dynamic of how these limbic structures interact with each other to produce altered behavioral outcomes in spatial ability, behavioral flexibility/executive function, and emotional arousal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)166-182
Number of pages17
JournalMolecular Neurobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 2009


  • Amygdala
  • Behavioral flexibility
  • Depression
  • Emotional arousal
  • Fear conditioning
  • Hippocampus
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Sex difference
  • Spatial memory
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)


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