Neuroscience Research and Sex Representation

Nicole Platti

Neuroscience, Nicole Platti

I first became interested in anatomy and physiology during my senior year HL biology course. Then, after taking a general psychology class as a freshmen in college, I decided to enroll in an upper-level psychology course with an emphasis in biology. The course, appropriately termed “Physiological Psychology,” was essentially an intensive analysis of the brain. In the class, we discussed sex differences within the brain, including how the discrepancies in size of anatomical structures could translate into various behaviors. One thing I took away from the lectures was that although differences between males and females exist, there is often greater variability among the members of one particular sex. This has been a hot topic in the news lately, with superstores de-gendering their toy aisles, but should the same disregard of sex differences extend to scientific research?

After discovering differences between male and female brains at the molecular level, a research team at Northwestern University challenged the way in which research is conducted. The neuroscientists found variations in the molecular regulation of specific synapses in the hippocampus between male and female brains. Their findings led the researchers to question whether aspects of neuroscience research, and subsequent healthcare developments, adequately address these differences. In current neuroscience research, approximately 85% of studies are done on male animals, tissues, cells, etc. If, as the Northwestern study concluded, the effects of certain drugs differ in males and females, then female animals, tissues, cells, etc. should be equally represented in the lab. In 2003, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began requiring female recruitment for all biomedical research studies involving human subjects. However, nothing similar has come up regarding the integration of female samples in laboratory research. I agree with the paper’s contributors that it is imperative for differences between males and females to be taken into account during the research process. The consequences of ignoring these distinctions can only be speculated, but among them are potential misguided diagnoses and treatments for women.

To learn more about the Northwestern study and its contributors’ thoughts on sex representation in research, visit this news article.

To review the full neuroscience paper referenced in this blog post, titled “Sex Differences in Molecular Signaling at Inhibitory Synapses in the Hippocampus,” visit this link.

To read about sex bias across the board of research disciplines, visit this NIH resource.

Editor: Rachel Levy