Summer Science Sizzles!

By Dr. Janine A. Clayton

It's August, and many of us are still in vacation mode. But science does not take a break, and that is a good thing! Over the past few months, researchers have uncovered fascinating information about how sex influences brain biology.

First is a new finding from Northwestern University that gives us new clues about why females are more prone to multiple sclerosis (MS). This condition often strikes in mid-life, robbing people of their ability to move easily, and it can also affect vision and memory. Although it's been known that MS is likely to be caused by an errant immune system, scientists have been mostly stumped about how. The new work shows that one type of immune cell — the innate lymphoid cell — acts differently in males and females. These cells protect male mice from developing an MS-like condition, but are inactive in females. Could stimulating these cells in females help to control the disease? Time will tell.

A second interesting finding focuses on pain. A research group at McGill University in Canada found that male and female mice use completely different cell types to relay pain signals from the immune system to the nervous system. Might this new work lead to different types of pain treatments for women and men? It is far too soon to know, but pain is a symptom of many chronic ailments and a significant issue in women's health.

Last but not least is research showing that smoking affects brain activity differently in females and males. Researchers at Yale University took "brain movies" of women and men smoking cigarettes. Using a powerful imaging technique called positron-emission tomography (PET scanning), the scientists watched as entirely different brain areas lit up in nicotine-dependent women and men. These results build on previous research that show male-female differences in the ability to quit smoking and may help further advance customized approaches for tobacco cessation.

That's all for now, but stay tuned for more insights made possible by considering both sexes in biomedical research!