The brain continues to produce new neurons throughout life, a process known as neurogenesis. Nearly two decades ago now, Dr. Shors and her collaborator Dr. Gould associated these new neurons with processes of learning and memory. Perhaps more importantly, they found that many of these new neurons die within weeks but learning can keep the new neurons alive. These findings relate to the expression “Use it or lose it.”




Not all types of learning keep new neurons alive. It turns out that the neurons only survive if learning itself occurs and the process is effortful.


This bar graph above shows how different types of effortful learning saves new neurons.



Dr. Shors is also very much interested in sex differences in the brain. In the distant past (1998!), she reported significant sex differences in how stress can affect learning. Amazingly, stress could enhance learning in a male rat while essentially preventing learning in a female rat. Her lab further found that these sex differences are mediated by different brain circuits. These effects of stress on learning are sensitive to virginity and motherhood and other natural changes across the female lifespan. At the time, these sex differences were unusual but now we know that they are not – sex differences are all around us.

Most recently, Dr. Shors has become committed to understanding the consequences of sexual violence on the female brain (Shors and Millon, 2016). She developed a novel model to study the effects of sexual aggression on the female brain. This model is referred to as SCAR, because it stands for Sexual Conspecific Aggression Response. Female rodents exposed to an adult sexually-experienced male were less likely to learn and to take care of offspring. As a consequence, they retained fewer new neurons in their brain (Shors et al., 2016). Again, these results were found in laboratory animals and would not necessarily be evident in humans but they do underscore the profound effect of sexual violence on behavior and biology of the female brain.


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