The pubertal development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis has received relatively little experimental attention. As puberty is marked by an increase in the susceptibility to various psychiatric disorders that may be related to HPA dysfunction, it is imperative to elucidate the pubertal development of this neuroendocrine axis. To date, the limited research in this area has been conducted primarily on males. Presently, we investigated stress responsiveness, as measured by both stress hormones (e.g., corticotropin (ACTH) and corticosterone) and gonadal steroids, in intact and ovariectomized prepubertal and adult female rats before and after a 30-min session of restraint stress. We report here that intact prepubertal females exhibit an extended corticosterone stress response (30–45 min longer) compared to intact adults. Moreover, ovariectomized prepubertal females continue to exhibit a prolonged stress-induced corticosterone and progesterone response compared to ovariectomized adults, indicating these protracted responses prior to puberty are independent of ovarian hormones. ACTH levels were not significantly different between intact and ovariectomized prepubertal and adult animals at all the post-stress time points measured, suggesting that the prolonged corticosterone response in prepubertal females is due to an enhanced sensitivity to ACTH at the level of the adrenal cortex. Taken together, these data indicate that stress reactivity changes dramatically during puberty in females. Furthermore, these data demonstrate additional development of the HPA axis during pubertal maturation, resulting in a more quickly terminated stress response in adulthood.

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