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AI Turner, BJ Canny, RJ Hobbs, JD Bond, IJ Clarke, and AJ Tilbrook

There are sex differences in the response to stress and in the influence of stress on reproduction which may be due to gonadal steroids but the nature of these differences and the role of the gonads are not understood. We tested the hypotheses that sex and the presence/absence of gonads (gonadal status) will influence the cortisol response to injection of ACTH, insulin-induced hypoglycaemia and isolation/restraint stress, and that sex and gonadal status will influence the secretion of LH in response to isolation/restraint stress. Four groups of sheep were used in each of three experiments: gonad-intact rams, gonadectomised rams, gonad-intact ewes in the mid-luteal phase of the oestrous cycle and gonadectomised ewes. In Experiment 1 (n=4/group), jugular blood samples were collected every 10 min for 6 h; after 3 h, two animals in each group were injected (i.v.) with ACTH and the remaining two animals were injected (i.v.) with saline. Treatments were reversed 5 days later so that every animal received both treatments. Experiment 2 (n=4/group) used a similar schedule except that insulin was injected (i.v.) instead of ACTH. In Experiment 3 (n=5/group), blood samples were collected every 10 min for 16 h on a control day and again 2 weeks later when, after 8 h of sampling, all sheep were isolated and restrained for 8 h. Plasma cortisol was significantly (P<0.05) elevated following injection of ACTH or insulin and during isolation/restraint stress. There were no significant differences between the sexes in the cortisol response to ACTH. Rams had a greater (P<0.05) cortisol response to insulin-induced hypoglycaemia than ewes while ewes had a greater (P<0.05) cortisol response to isolation/restraint stress than rams. There was no effect of gonadal status on these parameters. Plasma LH was suppressed (P<0.05) in gonadectomised animals during isolation/restraint stress but was not affected in gonad-intact animals, and there were no differences between the sexes. Our results show that the sex that has the greater cortisol response to a stressor depends on the stressor imposed and that these sex differences are likely to be at the level of the hypothalamo-pituitary unit rather than at the adrenal gland. Since there was a sex difference in the cortisol response to isolation/restraint, the lack of a sex difference in the response of LH to this stress suggests that glucocorticoids are unlikely to be a major mediator of the stress-induced suppression of LH secretion.