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RESEARCH

Sex Differences in the Healthy Brain

A 2001 report by the National Institute of Medicine emphasized the urgent need to develop translational research on understanding sex differences in the brain and their impact on clinical medicine.

Sex Differences in the Health Brain

The Background 

Although substantial work has identified multiple ways in which one's sex impacts health and disease, we still do not fully understand the underlying neurobiological mechanisms that give rise to sex differences in the healthy brain as it develops over time, and how these differences change during the aging process. Understanding sex differences in the healthy brain is a critical first step toward understanding what processes go awry in psychiatric and neurologic disorders with known sex differences.

Our Work

Our team is investigating the fetal and neonatal programming of sex differences in the healthy brain and the expression of these differences in adulthood. We are investigating the hormonal and genetic regulation of brain morphology and brain function using structural and functional MRI, diffusion tensor imaging, and hormonal and genetic studies in tandem with brain imaging. We have the unique opportunity to have followed a prenatal cohort as adults for > 20 years, wherein adult offspring are now 55-60 years old, allowing us to investigate how early life events (in utero and in childhood) give rise to sex differences in the healthy adult brain.

Relevant Findings

Examples of Significant Findings:

1. Hormonal and genetic processes that regulate the sexual differentiation of the brain during fetal development have enduring effects on sex differences in structural brain volumes in adulthood in healthy adults.

2. Circulating hormones have significant effects on brain activity in stress response circuitry in healthy women across the menstrual cycle.

3. Normal variations in hormonal changes in women significantly contribute to explaining sex differences in stress response circuitry in healthy adults. Women have a natural capacity to regulate the stress response that differs from men.