The medial prefrontal cortex is important for cognitive flexibility, a capability that is affected by environmental conditions and specific experiences. Aversive experience, such as chronic restraint stress, is known to impair performance on a task of cognitive flexibility, specifically attentional set-shifting, in rats. Concomitant with this performance decrement, chronic stress reduces the number of dendritic spines on pyramidal neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex. No previous studies have examined whether a rewarding experience, namely mating, affects cognitive flexibility and dendritic spines in the medial prefrontal cortex of male rats. To test this possibility, we exposed adult male rats to sexual receptive females once daily for one week, assessed attentional set-shifting performance, and then analyzed their brains for changes in dendritic spines. We found that sexual experience improved performance on extradimensional set-shifting, which is known to require the medial prefrontal cortex. Additionally, we observed increased dendritic spine density on apical and basal dendrites of pyramidal neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex, but not the orbitofrontal cortex, after sexual experience. We also found that sexual experience enhanced dendritic spine density on granule neurons of the dentate gyrus. The ventral hippocampus sends a direct projection to the medial prefrontal cortex, raising the possibility that experience-dependent changes in the hippocampus are necessary for alterations in medial prefrontal cortex structure and function. As a first attempt at investigating this, we inactivated the ventral hippocampus with the GABA agonist muscimol, after each daily bout of sexual experience to observe whether the beneficial effects on cognitive flexibility were abolished. Contrary to our hypothesis, blocking hippocampal activity after sexual experience had no impact on enhanced cognitive flexibility. Taken together, these findings indicate that sexual experience enhances medial prefrontal cortex dendritic spine density and cognitive flexibility but that these effects may not require continual input from the hippocampus.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Cognitive Neuroscience
- Behavioral Neuroscience
- Dendritic spine
- Medial prefrontal cortex