Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Neuroscience Institute

First Advisor

Kim L. Huhman

Second Advisor

Laura L. Carruth

Third Advisor

Marise B. Parent

Fourth Advisor

Kerry J. Ressler


Social stress is a prevalent factor in society that can cause or exacerbate neuropsychiatric disorders including depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. According to the National Institutes of Health, 6.9% of adults in this country currently suffer from depression, and 4.1% suffer from an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, current treatments are ineffective in reducing or alleviating symptoms in a majority of these patients. Thus, it is critical to understand how social stress changes in brain and behavior so that we might develop alternative treatments. Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which binds to tyrosine kinase B (TrkB) receptors, plays a role in fear learning and in behavioral responses to stress, although we do not currently know whether BDNF promotes or prevents these responses. The purpose of this project was to understand how BDNF alters brain and behavior in response to social stress using a model of social stress in Syrian hamsters, termed conditioned defeat (CD). CD refers to the marked increase in submissive and defensive behavior following social defeat. Specific Aim (SA) 1 tested the hypothesis that BDNF, via TrkB receptors, promotes CD learning. Instead, we found that BDNF and a selective TrkB receptor agonist reduced CD and that a TrkB receptor antagonist enhanced CD. SA 2 tested the hypothesis that the behavioral response observed following systemic administration of TrkB-active drugs is mediated via their action in specific nodes of the neural circuit underlying CD. Unfortunately, the vehicle in which these drugs are dissolved independently activates immediate early gene expression making interpretation of these data impossible. Finally, SA 3 tested the hypothesis that BDNF alters defeat-induced neural activation at least in part by acting in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). We demonstrated that BNDF microinjected into the mPFC site-specifically altered defeat-induced neural activation in the CD neural circuit supporting this hypothesis. Overall, these data suggest that BDNF acts to prevent social stress-induced changes in behavior, at least in part via the basolateral amygdala and the mPFC, and that BDNF-active drugs might be a useful avenue to pursue to discover new treatments for patients that suffer from stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders.