Sex-Specific Transcriptional Changes in Response to Adolescent Social Stress in the Brain's Reward Circuitry

Deena M. Walker, Xianxiao Zhou, Ashley M. Cunningham, Andrew P. Lipschultz, Aarthi Ramakrishnan, Hannah M. Cates, Rosemary C. Bagot, Li Shen, Bin Zhang, Eric J. Nestler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Background: Sex differences in addiction have been described in humans and animal models. A key factor that influences addiction in both males and females is adolescent experience. Adolescence is associated with higher vulnerability to substance use disorders, and male rodents subjected to adolescent social isolation (SI) stress form stronger preferences for drugs of abuse in adulthood. However, little is known about how females respond to SI, and few studies have investigated the transcriptional changes induced by SI in the brain's reward circuitry. Methods: We tested the hypothesis that SI alters the transcriptome in a persistent and sex-specific manner in prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, and ventral tegmental area. Mice were isolated or group housed from postnatal day P22 to P42, then group housed until ∼P90. Transcriptome-wide changes were investigated by RNA sequencing after acute or chronic cocaine or saline administration. Results: We found that SI disrupts sex-specific transcriptional responses to cocaine and reduces sex differences in gene expression across all three brain regions. Furthermore, SI induces gene expression profiles in males that more closely resemble group-housed females, suggesting that SI “feminizes” the male transcriptome. Coexpression analysis reveals that such disruption of sex differences in gene expression alters sex-specific gene networks and identifies potential sex-specific key drivers of these transcriptional changes. Conclusions: Together, these data show that SI has region-specific effects on sex-specific transcriptional responses to cocaine and provide a better understanding of reward-associated transcription that differs in males and females.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)118-128
Number of pages11
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Cocaine
  • Gene coexpression
  • Gene expression Network analysis
  • RNA-sequencing
  • Sex differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biological Psychiatry


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