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We recently found that non-stressed female rats have higher basal prepro-orexin expression and activation of orexinergic neurons compared to non-stressed males, which lead to impaired habituation to repeated restraint stress at the behavioral, neural, and endocrine level. Here, we extended our study of sex differences in the orexin system by examining spine densities and dendritic morphology in putative orexin neurons in adult male and female rats that were exposed to 5 consecutive days of 30-min restraint. Analysis of spine distribution and density indicated that putative orexinergic neurons in control non-stressed females had significantly more dendritic spines than those in control males, and the majority of these were mushroom spines. This morphological finding may suggest more excitatory input onto orexin neurons in female rats. As orexin neurons are known to promote the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal response, this morphological change in orexin neurons could underlie the impaired habituation to repeated stress in female rats. Dendritic complexity did not differ between non-stressed males and females, however repeated restraint stress decreased total dendritic length, nodes, and branching primarily in males. Thus, reduced dendritic complexity of putative orexinergic neurons is observed in males but not in females after 5 days of repeated restraint stress. This morphological change might be reflective of decreased orexin system function, which may allow males to habituate more fully to repeated restraint than females. These results extend our understanding of the role of orexin neurons in regulating habituation and demonstrate changes in putative orexin cell morphology and spines that may underlie sex differences in habituation.


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