Sex and the Developing Brain

Sex and the Developing Brain

Margaret McCarthy
ISBN: 9781615040605 | PDF ISBN: 9781615040612
Copyright © 2010 | 110 Pages | Publication Date: 01/01/2010

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The brains of males and females, men and women, are different...that is a fact. What is debated is how different and how important those differences are. Sex differences in the brain are determined by genetics, hormones, and experience, which in humans includes culture, society, and parental and peer expectations. The importance of nonbiological variables to sex differences in humans is paramount, making it difficult if not impossible to parse out those contributions that are truly biological. The study of animals provides us the opportunity to understand the magnitude and scope of biologically based sex differences in the brain and understanding the cellular mechanisms provides us insight into novel sources of brain plasticity. Many sex differences are established during a developmental sensitive window by differences in the hormonal milieu of males versus females. The neonatal testis produces large amounts of testosterone, which gains access to the brain and is further metabolized into active androgens and estrogens, which modify brain development. Major parameters that are influenced by hormones include neurogenesis, cell death, neurochemical phenotype, axonal and dendritic growth, and synaptogenesis. Variance in these parameters results in sex differences in the size of particular brain regions, the projections between brain regions, and the number and type of synapses within particular brain regions. The cellular mechanisms are both region and endpoint specific and invoke many surprising systems such as prostaglandins, endocannabinoids, and cell death proteins. By understanding when, why, and how sex differences in the brain are established, we may also learn the source of strong gender biases in the relative risk and severity of numerous neurological diseases and disorders of mental health, including but not limited to autism, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and major depressive disorder.

Table of Contents

Sex Determination versus Sex Differentiation
Masculinization, Feminization, and Defeminization
Steroid Hormones Are Potent Modulators of Brain Development
Sex Differences in the Brain Are Established During a Developmental Sensitive Window
Sex Differences in Physiology and Behavior Are Coordinated
Knockouts of the Rule: Mice with Null Mutations of Steroid Receptors, Steroidogenic Enzymes, and Binding Proteins
Steroids Influence Multiple Endpoints to Organize the Brain
Cellular Mechanisms of Steroid-Mediated Organization of the Brain
Winged Messengers: Lessons from Birds and Flies
Sexual Differentiation of the Primate Brain
Sexual Differentiation of the Human Brain
Overcoming the Hegemony of Hormones: Genes Matter Too
The Value of Understanding the Effect of Sex on the Developing Brain

About the Author(s)

Margaret McCarthy, University of Maryland
My research program focuses on the influence of steroid hormones on the developing brain. During perinatal life, there is a sensitive period for hormone exposure during which permanent cytoarchitectural changes are established. Males and females are exposed to different hormonal milieus and this results in sex differences in the brain. These differences include alterations in the volumes of particular brain nuclei and patterns of synaptic connectivity. The mechanisms by which sexually dimorphic structures are formed in the brain remains poorly understood. I received my PhD in Behavioral and Neural Sciences from the Institute of Animal Behavior at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ in 1989. I then spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the Rockefeller University in New York, NY and one year as a National Research Council Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, before joining the faculty at the University of Maryland. I am a member of the University of Maryland Graduate School and the Center for Studies in Reproduction. I am also a member of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology, the Society for Neuroscience, the American Physiological Association, and the Endocrine Society.

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