Full recordShow full item record
AbstractDevelopment and sex differentiation impart an organizational influence on the neuroanatomy and behavior of mammalian species. Prior studies suggest that brain regions associated with fear motivated defensive behavior undergo a protracted and sex-dependent development. Outside of adult animals, evidence for developmental sex differences in conditioned fear is sparse. Here, we examined in male and female Long-Evans rats how developmental age and sex affect the long-term retention and generalization of Pavlovian fear responses. Experiments 1 and 2 describe under increasing levels of aversive learning (three and five trials) the long-term retrieval of cued and context fear in preadolescent (P24 and P33), periadolescent (P37), and adult (P60 and P90) rats. Experiments 3 and 4 examined contextual processing under minimal aversive learning (1 trial) procedures in infant (P19, P21), preadolescent (P24), and adult (P60) rats. Here, we found that male and female rats display a divergent developmental trajectory in the expression of context-mediated freezing, such that context fear expression in males tends to increase toward adulthood, while females displayed an opposite pattern of decreasing context fear expression toward adulthood. Longer (14 d) retention intervals produced an overall heightened context fear expression relative to shorter (1 d) retention intervals an observation consistent with fear incubation. Male, but not Female rats showed increasing generalization of context fear across development. Collectively, these findings provide an initial demonstration that sexual differentiation of contextual fear conditioning emerges prior to puberty and follows a distinct developmental trajectory toward adulthood that strikingly parallels sex differences in the etiology and epidemiology of anxiety and trauma- and stressor-related disorders.