The brains of men and women handle stress differently and that alters the way their bodies experience chronic diseases such as depression, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders, researchers report.
The scientists used functional MRI to monitor the brain activity of healthy men and women viewing stress-triggering images. The women underwent brain scans twice, once at the start of their menstrual cycle and once during ovulation.
At the start of their menstrual cycle, the women's brain activity in response to stress was similar to men. But the men's response to stress was much higher when compared to women during ovulation.
"We found that women have been endowed with a natural hormone capacity to regulate the stress response in the brain that differs from men," study author Jill Goldstein, director of research at the Connors Centre for Women's Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said in a news release from the hospital.
What the study found
The most significant differences were detected in brain regions that control the autonomic arousal response. The findings suggest that gender differences in stress response circuitry are hormonally regulated through the control of arousal.
"The results were striking given that men and women reported experiencing the stressful stimuli similarly even though their brains were activating differently," Goldstein said.
She noted that diseases affected by stress often present differently in women and men.
"Therefore, understanding sex differences in stress regulation in the brain can provide clues to understanding the nature of these chronic medical disorders. Mapping out sex-specific physiology in the brain will also provide the basis for the development of sex-specific treatments for these diseases," Goldstein said.
The study appears online in the Journal of Neuroscience. - (HealthDay News, January 2010)