Research suggests a causal link between estrogens and mood. Here, we began by examining the effects of estradiol (E2) on rat innate and conditioned defensive behaviors in response to cat odor. Second, we utilized whole-cell patch clamp electrophysiological techniques to assess noradrenergic effects on neurons within the dorsal premammillary nucleus of the hypothalamus (PMd), a nucleus implicated in fear reactivity, and their regulation by E2. Our results show that E2 increased general arousal and modified innate defensive reactivity to cat odor. When ovariectomized females treated with E2 as opposed to oil were exposed to cat odor, they showed elevations in risk assessment and reductions in freezing, indicating a shift from passive to active coping. In addition, animals previously exposed to cat odor showed clear cue + context conditioning 24 h later. However, although E2 persisted in its effects on general arousal in the conditioning task, its effects on fear disappeared. In the patch clamp experiments noradrenergic compounds that typically induce fear clearly excited PMd neurons, producing depolarizations and action potentials. E2 treatment shifted some excitatory effects of noradrenergic agonists to inhibitory, possibly by differentially affecting α- and β-adrenoreceptors. In summary, our results implicate E2 in general arousal and fear reactivity, and suggest these may be governed by changes in noradrenergic responsivity in the PMd. These effects of E2 may have ethological relevance, serving to promote mate seeking even in contexts of ambiguous threat and shed light on the involvement of estrogen in mood and its associated disorders.
Mood disorders plague scores of people, with far reaching ramifications on world society and economy. The prevalence of anxiety disorders is clearly sex-dependent, with some studies reporting a double-fold preponderance of women to develop anxiety and depression. Psychiatric illnesses are currently studied as disorders of the central nervous system, which involve distinct brain circuits that govern behavior. In the following research we assess the effects of estrogens on physiology and behavior, and suggest a potential mechanism whereby estrogens affect the dorsal premammillary nucleus of the hypothalamus to affect behaviors associated with fear and anxiety.