The idea that women far surpass the majority of men when it comes to handling stress has long been considered a truism. But does it have any scientific validity? Do men really find themselves at a biological disadvantage in pressing situations?

According to researchers at the University of Buffalo, the answer is yes. In a new study published in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers offer a scientific explanation to why women are much more resilient to high levels of stress: estrogen.

"We have examined the molecular mechanism underlying gender-specific effects of stress," said senior author Zhen Yan, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. "Previous studies have found that females are more resilient to chronic stress and now our research has found the reason why."

The research builds on findings published by the team last year, when they determined that repeated stress impairs the glutamate receptor in the prefrontal cortex — a brain structure that controls memory, attention, and decision-making.

The new experiment found that young female rats, after exposure to periodic physical restraint stress, did not exhibit the impairment of short-term memory that males in the same situation did. Scientists determined that the females owed their resilience to a protective effect of estrogen.

"When estrogen signaling in the brains of females was blocked, stress exhibited detrimental effects on them," Yan explained. "When estrogen signaling was activated in males, the detrimental effects of stress were blocked."

"We still found the protective effect of estrogen in female rats whose ovaries were removed. It suggests that it might be estrogen produced in the brain that protects against the detrimental effects of stress."

The results could represent a significant step towards more sophisticated forms of medication for people suffering from stress-related conditions. However, researchers still have work to do before the protective effect of estrogen can be isolated and identified elsewhere.

"If we could find compounds similar to estrogen that could be administered without causing hormonal side effects, they could prove to be a very effective treatment for stress-related problems in males," said Yan.