Abstract: Emerging evidence indicates that males and females display different neurobiological responses to chronic stress which contribute to varied behavioral adaptations. In particular, pyramidal neurons undergo dendritic atrophy and synapse loss in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of male, but not female, mice. Our recent work shows that chronic stress also provokes microglia-mediated neuronal remodeling, which contributes to synaptic deficits in the PFC and associated behavioral consequences in males. Separate studies indicate that chronic stress promotes astrocyte dystrophy in the PFC which is associated with behavioral despair. Notably, these prior reports focused primarily on stress effects in males. In the present studies, male and female mice were exposed to 14 or 28 days of chronic unpredictable stress (CUS) to assess molecular and cellular adaptations of microglia, astrocytes, and neurons in the medial PFC. Consistent with our recent work, male, but not female, mice displayed behavioral and cognitive deficits with corresponding perturbations of neuroimmune factors in the PFC after 14 days of CUS. Fluorescence-activated cell sorting and gene expression analyses revealed that CUS increased expression of select markers of phagocytosis in male PFC microglia. Confocal imaging in Thy1-GFP(M) mice showed that CUS reduced dendritic spine density, decreased GFAP immunolabeling, and increased microglia-mediated neuronal remodeling only in male mice. After 28 days of CUS, both male and female mice displayed behavioral and cognitive impairments. Interestingly, there were limited stress effects on neuroimmune factors and measures of microglial phagocytosis in the PFC of both sexes. Despite limited changes in neuroimmune function, reduced GFAP immunolabeling and dendritic spine deficits persisted in male mice. Further, GFAP immunolabeling and dendritic spine density remained unaltered in the PFC of females. These findings indicate that chronic stress causes sex-specific and temporally dynamic changes in microglial function which are associated with different neurobiological and behavioral adaptations. In all, these results suggest that microglia-mediated neuronal remodeling, astrocyte dystrophy, and synapse loss contribute to stress-induced PFC dysfunction and associated behavioral consequences in male mice.
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