hormones and learning

Stress, Learning and Estradiol

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In many ways, we assume males and females are the same, even though we know each sex has distinct and obvious differences in physiology and behavior. In the case of the stress, although the basic physiological response is comparable, the chemical reactions that the stress response elicits in males versus females are quite dissimilar. The divergent reactions are mediated by the varying concentrations of reproductive hormones that each sex is exposed to.  Far beyond just controlling sex differentiation and reproduction, sex hormones like progesterone, estradiol and testosterone modulate brain and body chemistry quite significantly. The differences in the circulating concentrations of these hormones may account for the unequal prevalence rates of many diseases such as of depression, auto-immune disease, or migraine. These diseases are far more common in women than men.

Hormones also influence neurochemistry, and therefore, learning. In general, males and females learn quite differently from one another. Males tend to be better at spatial tasks while females tend to perform better at verbal tasks. Research suggests testosterone and estradiol may mediate those performance differences.

Estradiol affects learning under stress. When exposed to stressful conditions, male rodents learn certain classically conditioned tasks more rapidly than female rodents. However, when the female rodents’ ovaries are removed or estradiol is blocked by a drug like Tamoxifen, the difference between the two sexes is removed. That is, the female rodents acquire the conditioning as quickly and as effectively as the male rodents.

Even though, humans are far more complicated than rodents and the controlled stress and the scope of classical conditioning tasks in the lab are limited compared to the stress and learning that takes place in the real world, it is clear that sex matters, and thus by definition, sex hormones matter.

To read more about sex differences in neurochemistry:
The End of Sex as We Know It


Chandler Marrs MS, MA, PhD spent the last dozen years in women’s health research with a focus on steroid neuroendocrinology and mental health. She has published and presented several articles on her findings. As a graduate student, she founded and directed the UNLV Maternal Health Lab, mentoring dozens of students while directing clinical and Internet-based research. Post graduate, she continued at UNLV as an adjunct faculty member, teaching advanced undergraduate psychopharmacology and health psychology (stress endocrinology). Dr. Marrs received her BA in philosophy from the University of Redlands; MS in Clinical Psychology from California Lutheran University; and, MA and PhD in Experimental Psychology/ Neuroendocrinology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


  1. Thank you! The Feminist movement had to demonstrate the women were capable of female behavior to increase our value, but now, we need to value and understand the differences.

    My question is WHAT FUNCTION DOES THIS PROCESS SERVE? I believe human design is perfect in its intention. This phenomena has an affect on the resulting behavior and that may indicate the “natural” role of women in human survival.

    It may, in part, be due to role of the man as protector. In high stress situations, he needs to thrive. Whereas, the female would be hiding, protecting the young.

    I just have so many thoughts. Thank you for the article.

    • I’ve never considered what function this might serve. Hmmm. That is a very interesting question. I will have to pose it to some of my more anthropologically minded friends and see what they come up with. Alternatively, there might be compensatory reactions that were not tested and allude to different strengths.

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