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Sex does matter: Key molecular process in brain is different in males and females


Male and female brains operate differently at a molecular level, a Northwestern University research team reports in a new study of a brain region involved in learning and memory, responses to stress and epilepsy.

Many brain disorders vary between the sexes, but how biology and culture contribute to these differences has been unclear. Now Northwestern neuroscientists have found an intrinsic biological difference between males and females in the molecular regulation of synapses in the hippocampus. This provides a scientific reason to believe that female and male brains may respond differently to drugs targeting certain synaptic pathways.

“The importance of studying sex differences in the brain is about making biology and medicine relevant to everyone, to both men and women,” said Catherine S. Woolley, senior author of the study. “It is not about things such as who is better at reading a map or why more men than women choose to enter certain professions.”

Among their findings, the scientists found that a drug called URB-597, which regulates a molecule important in neurotransmitter release, had an effect in females that it did not have in males. While the study was done in rats, it has broad implications for humans because this drug and others like it are currently being tested in clinical trials in humans.

“Our study starts to put some specifics on what types of molecular differences there are in male and female brains,” Woolley said.

Woolley is the William Deering Chair in Biological Sciences, professor of neurobiology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The study of inhibitory synapses and endocannabinoids, which regulate neurotransmitters, was published today in The Journal of Neuroscience. It is the first study to detail where males and females differ in a key molecular pathway in the brain.

“We don’t know whether this finding will translate to humans or not,” Woolley said, “but right now people who are investigating endocannabinoids in humans probably are not aware that manipulating these molecules could have different effects in males and females.”


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