REHOVOT, Israel — Stress impacts men and women differently, and men make be the ones who suffer the most. That’s according to new research that could lead to tailored treatments for depression and obesity. During the study, when subjected to stress, certain brain cells in male mice underwent changes. In contrast, these cells remained unchanged in female mice.
The study, conducted by scientists at the Weizmann Institute and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, examined the rodents’ brain activity at a higher resolution than previous experiments.
Interestingly, certain cells displayed a heightened vulnerability to stress in females compared to males, and vice versa. The most notable distinction was observed in a brain cell known as the oligodendrocyte, a variant of the glial cell. This cell assists nerve cells and plays a pivotal role in regulating brain activity. When exposed to chronic stress, the entire structure and expression of the oligodendrocyte in males changed, impacting its interaction with nearby nerve cells. Conversely, female oligodendrocytes displayed no significant change, demonstrating their insensitivity to stress.
Historically, the understanding of gender disparities in stress reactions has been skewed, primarily because research predominantly used male mice. The variability introduced by menstruation and hormonal fluctuations in females was considered a potential confounder.
“We turned the most sensitive research lens possible onto the area of the brain that acts as a central hub of the stress response in mammals, the paraventricular nucleus (PVN) of the hypothalamus,” says lead author, Dr. Elena Brivio of the Max Planck Institute, in a media release. “By sequencing the RNA molecules in that part of the brain on the level of the individual cell, we were able to map the stress response in male and female mice along three main axes: how each cell type in that part of the brain responds to stress, how each cell type previously exposed to chronic stress responds to a new stress experience and how these responses differ between males and females.”
The team adds that their online platform would enable researchers to observe how specific gene expressions change in response to stress in both sexes.
“Even if a study does not specifically focus on the differences between males and females, it’s essential to include female animals in the research, especially in neuroscience and behavioral science, just as it is important to implement the most sensitive research methods, in order to obtain as complete a picture of brain activity as possible,” Dr. Brivio emphasizes.
By assessing gene expressions in over 35,000 cells, the team elucidated distinct stress responses between genders.
“Our findings show that, when it comes to stress-related health conditions, from depression to diabetes, it’s very important to take the sex variable into account, since it has a significant impact on how different brain cells respond to stress,” concludes Professor Alon Chen.
The study is published in the journal Cells Reports.
South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.