Exploring how biological sex and gender influence our brain, body and behavior.

Dr. Jeannette Wolfe, MD

Brain Pod

Ok, this pod is definitely the geekiest and possibly the coolest as it looks at some of the cutting edge science that examines how biological sex and gender may influence how our brain actually works. Although we have known for a long time that men and women are prone to different neurological conditions- men are more likely to have ADHD, autism, conduct disorder and psychopathy, and women Alzheimer’s, PTSD, anxiety and depression- most mainstream neuroscience researchers have been relatively late in joining the sex and gender bandwagon. This is demonstrated by a 2011 study that examined bench research (think petri dishes and lab animals) published in prominent neuroscience journals. It showed that most authors not only failed to analyze their data by biological sex but that studies involving only male animals outnumbered studies involving only female ones by greater than 5:1!

Ok, so you might ask was this initial reluctance from the neuroscience community really such a big deal? Well, let’s come up with a hypothetical situation in which you are a basic science researcher and are working on a promising new drug to help patients recover from a stroke. The drug has a unique characteristic which you have not actually yet discovered, it works really, really well but only in females. In fact, if it is taken by a male animal, he does much worse than the control animals who are not given any of the experimental drug.  Now, if you used an equal number of males and females in your trial and simply added up and then averaged out the results of all the animals mixed together you would end up with misleading data.  Your results would underestimate the drug’s benefit in females and mask its dangerous side effects in males. Furthermore, if you conducted the study in a traditional lab (until a 2014 National Institute of Health  mandate required researchers to include female animals/cell lines in their studies about 80% of basic science research relied exclusively on male animals) chances are you likely didn’t include any females in your initial study. If this was the case, the drug would likely have been immediately thrown out when it showed that it made animals get sick.

Seems a little too esoteric? Well right now there is actual data suggesting that our biological sex likely affects if and how injured cells in our bodies trigger their own suicide which has real world implications for how we optimize the care of patients having strokes and heart attacks.

Fortunately, the tide in neuroscience is slowly changing and more and more mainstream researchers have begun to include biological sex as a variable into their own work. This has coincided with the development of and increased access to new brain imaging techniques. With this,  sex based research has subtly shifted from searching for differences in anatomical size of brain regions (of which there are very few), towards examining how neurons within these regions are connected  with each other and  bundle together to communicate to other brain regions.

During the “Brain Pod” segments of my podcasts we will discuss some of this fascinating and revolutionary science with neuroscientist co-hosts. To get started, I have included a few of my favorite resources below.


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