Sex differences in stress-induced social withdrawal: Independence from adult gonadal hormones and inhibition of female phenotype by corncob bedding

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There is compelling evidence for important sex differences in behavioral and hormonal responses to psychosocial stress. Here we examined the effects of gonadal hormones on behavioral responses to social defeat stress in monogamous California mice (Peromyscus californicus). Three episodes of social defeat induced social withdrawal in intact females but not males. Gonadectomy blocked corticosterone responses to defeat in females and sensitized male corticosterone responses. However, gonadectomy had no effects on social interaction behavior, suggesting that social withdrawal is not dependent on gonadal hormones in the adult California mouse. In contrast, defeat reduced exploratory behavior in the open field test for intact but not castrated males. We also examined the effects of social defeat on social interaction behavior when California mice were raised on corncob bedding, which has estrogenic properties. In this dataset of over 300 mice, we observed that social defeat did not induce social withdrawal when females were raised on corncob bedding. This finding suggests that the use of corncob in rodent studies could mask important sex differences in the effects of stress on brain and behavior. Although gonadal hormones do not affect social withdrawal behavior in adults, our data suggest that hormones may act earlier in development to induce a more resilient social phenotype.