As a growing literature has proven, adverse experiences, particularly when severe and persistent, play a pivotal role in the development of neuronal dysfunctions and psychopathology. In the present study, the neurochemical changes induced by acute and repeated footshock exposure were investigated at the molecular and cellular level, using c-fos and phospho-ERK1/2 immunoreactivity and gene expression arrays. Marked gender-related differences were found following both acute and prolonged footshock exposure. Acute aversive conditioning resulted in significant inummohistochemical changes that might be critically involved in the modulation of fear-related responses, especially in males. Prolonged footshock exposure, on the contrary, was associated with sustained hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis hyperactivity, differential gender-related patterns of cortical-limbic activity, and abnormal neuronal plasticity, especially in medial prefrontocortical regions. These data may provide additional insights into the understanding of the neural circuits underlying the effects of acute and repeated footshock exposure as well as clarify some of the mechanisms involved in the development of stress-related neuronal abnormalities. (C) 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.