Aversive stressful experiences are typically associated with increased anxiety and a predisposition to develop mood disorders. Negative stress also suppresses adult neurogenesis and restricts dendritic architecture in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with anxiety regulation. The effects of aversive stress on hippocampal structure and function have been linked to stress-induced elevations in glucocorticoids. Normalizing corticosterone levels prevents some of the deleterious consequences of stress, including increased anxiety and suppressed structural plasticity in the hippocampus. Here we examined whether a rewarding stressor, namely sexual experience, also adversely affects hippocampal structure and function in adult rats. Adult male rats were exposed to a sexually-receptive female once (acute) or once daily for 14 consecutive days (chronic) and levels of circulating glucocorticoids were measured. Separate cohorts of sexually experienced rats were injected with the thymidine analog bromodeoxyuridine in order to measure cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the hippocampus. In addition, brains were processed using Golgi impregnation to assess the effects of sexual experience on dendritic spines and dendritic complexity in the hippocampus. Finally, to evaluate whether sexual experience alters hippocampal function, rats were tested on two tests of anxiety-like behavior: novelty suppressed feeding and the elevated plus maze. We found that acute sexual experience increased circulating corticosterone levels and the number of new neurons in the hippocampus. Chronic sexual experience no longer produced an increase in corticosterone levels but continued to promote adult neurogenesis and stimulate the growth of dendritic spines and dendritic architecture. Chronic sexual experience also reduced anxiety-like behavior. These findings suggest that a rewarding experience not only buffers against the deleterious actions of early elevated glucocorticoids but actually promotes neuronal growth and reduces anxiety.
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