Sex and Gender Influences on Nervous System Function

A new study has found that adolescents suffering from bipolar disorder are more likely to develop substance use disorders if they have lower gray matter volume in the brain, a clue that can help in the design of better methods for early detection and more targeted prevention and treatment.

Dr. Hilary Blumberg, senior author of the study pointed out that bipolar and substance use disorders often develop together in adolescence, and this co-occurrence increases the risk of adverse outcomes such as suicide. “This study provides the first insight into the regulatory brain systems that may underlie this elevated risk,” said lead author of the study, Elizabeth Lippard, Ph.D.

And, importantly, investigators found the gray matter reductions had different patterns in females and males.

Co-author Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., said, “Our findings provide further evidence that sex matters in neuroscience research, and demonstrate the importance of examining differences between girls and boys, women and men. We don’t know what we don’t study. And what we don’t know can’t be used to help others.”

“It is critical to continue to work to understand sex differences in the development of brain pathways to these disorders to improve early detection, treatment, and prevention,” Blumberg said.

The study is part of a Journal of Neuroscience Research issue, available free to the public and dedicated entirely to sex differences in various brain-based disorders, from the genetic and epigenetic level, to the synaptic, cellular, and systems levels.

Topics covered in the issue include studies on sex-specific mechanisms of responding to stress, sex differences in face recognition, sex-specific effects of the gene that causes Huntington’s disease, and sex differences in risk factors for multiple sclerosis.

Dr Eric M. Prager, the journal’s Editor-in-Chief, declared that neuroscience has arrived at a crossroads.

“Do we continue the status quo and ignore sex as a biological variable, or do we acknowledge that sex influences the brain at all levels and address the major gaps in knowledge?” Prager said. “The work published in this issue unequivocally concludes that sex matters and that researchers can no longer allow for the over-reliance on male animals and cells, which obscure key differences that might influence clinical studies.”

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