There I knew it – men and women are different!
Well, yes, and no! I wrote in more detail on the similarities and differences between men and women’s brains here – it’s more complicated than you might think. And this research was in male and female mice – not human beings.
Oh, but there’s a difference then?
Well first off – and this is important in general. There is a male and female research problem: namely that animal models and research are normally only conducted on male mice. Which means if there is a difference we could be missing something important. The same also goes for clinical trials in human beings – these are also more often than not conducted in men (and white men at that).
Ok, that sounds wrong, so there should be more diversity in research but back to the stress response: don’t we already know that men and women respond differently to stress?
Yes, there are well documented differences – for example women more often than men exhibit a tend and befriend strategy in stressful times – they look after and seek out friends.
But this research investigated direct responses in the brain – the hypothalamus, a region that is a hub for the stress response and triggering hormone release.
And what did they find?
Well, first off, let me explain what they did because this is pretty impressive. The study was conducted by a group of researchers at the Max-Planck Institute in Germany. They managed to sequence RNA for 35’000 cells in a region of the Hypothalamus and then compare response to initial stress and repeated stress events.
This is unprecedented to be able to track the genetic response of 35’000 cells in a given region including neurons but also what are called glial cells. Glial cells are helping cells in the brain. Very impressive (and they made the dataset public so other researchers can use this).
Oh wow that does sound impressive! And this data showed different responses?
Indeed they found that one class of glial cells responds differently in males and females. For males these cells responded directly to stress events but especially to chronic stress also leading to structural change. In females these cells did not respond at all.
And what does that mean?
Well, it’s far too early to give and clear implications and actions. But the key takeaways are this:
Genetic activation shows much more than basic observation
All cells need to be taken into account
And the importance of having more diversity in research groups – this applies at the level of the mice and the level of human beings.
If you don’t have the granularity that the above technique brought to the table it is easy to miss something. If you don’t have the diversity you also miss something or can come to the wrong general conclusions.
So more granularity and more diversity!
Yup – and less chronic stress for men!