Women are more likely to get depressions; men are more likely to get ALS and we don’t know why. The biggest physiological differences between men and women are their sex hormones. Sex hormones are often blamed for mood swings and wild behaviour, but what do we really know about the effect of hormones on the brain? I’m studying what hormones do to the metabolism of sick and healthy brain cells and what that means for treatment of mental health disorders in men and women.
I study both brain cells and actual humans. My early results are showing that oestrogen has an effect on a very important part of the metabolism of brain immune cells. This part is called the ‘kynurenine pathway’ and it produces molecules that communicate with both the immune system and other brain cells. When I looked at levels of these molecules in human samples, I found that they are different in men and women and that the differences are dependent on their sex hormone levels.
We know quite a bit about how mental disorders are different in men and women, but we really don’t know why. The metabolic pathway I study is involved in a lot of these disorders. Putting together the puzzle pieces of the kynurenine pathway and sex hormones will give us an idea of how they fit together to produce or prevent mental disorders. The kynurenine pathway is part of the metabolism of most cells in the body, so understanding this relationship may well prove important in the whole of medical research.
Even though we know that a lot of diseases affect men and women differently, most research is done in males. This means that effectively, women are medically treated as if they were men. By understanding the interactions of sex hormones with our physiology we can not only right a blatant wrong, we may also unlock a new mechanism for treatment. Additionally, in medical research gender would go from being a ‘mysterious unknown to be avoided’, to a known factor to be incorporated to make for more complete and well-rounded studies.