Exposure to restraint and brief intermittent tailshocks facilitates associative learning of the classical conditioned eyeblink response in male rats. Based on evidence of sex differences in learning and responses to stressful events, we investigated sexually dimorphic effects of a stressor of restraint and intermittent tailshock on classical eyeblink conditioning 24 h after stressor cessation. Our results indicate that exposure to the acute stressor had diametrically opposed effects on the rate of acquisition of the conditioned response in male vs. female rats. Exposure to the stressor facilitated acquisition of the conditioned response in males, whereas exposure to the same stressful event dramatically impaired acquisition in females. We further demonstrate that the stress-induced impairment in female conditioning is dependent on the presence of ovarian hormones. Conditioning of stressed sham-ovariectomized females was significantly impaired relative to the unstressed controls, whereas conditioning in stressed ovariectomized females was not impaired. We present additional evidence that estrogen mediates the stress-induced impairment in female acquisition. Females administered sesame oil vehicle and then stressed were significantly impaired relative to their unstressed controls, whereas females administered the estrogen antagonist tamoxifen prior to stress were not impaired. In summary, these results indicate that exposure to the same aversive event can induce opposite behavioral responses in males vs. females. These effects underscore sex differences in associative learning and emotional responding, and implicate estrogen in the underlying neuronal mechanism
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