Scientists Look to Explain Why Women Are More Likely Than Men to Suffer From Anxiety and Depression

A new study led by scholars at Fordham University in New York explores possible biological explanations for why woman are more likely than men to suffer from anxiety and depression. In experiments on mice, the researchers found that chromatin, a microscopic cell component, changes its shape during the ovarian cycle — especially when females experience a drop in estrogen. Because this occurs inside the brain area implicated in anxiety and depression, it may mediate women’s vulnerability to increased risk for these disorders.

The authors explain that there’s really no difference in risk for depression for girls and boys before they reach puberty. This risk really becomes two times higher in females when they get their first period — when the hormones start fluctuating. And then around perimenopause, this difference becomes even more profound because there are more extreme fluctuations. Women can have very high or very low sex hormones. And then after menopause, when women achieve these very stable, low sex hormone levels, the sex difference becomes almost nonexistent. This is not about low or high hormones, but the fluctuations in hormones that might be increasing women’s vulnerability to anxiety and depression.

Marija Kundakovic, an assistant professor of biology at Fordham and a co-author of the study, states that “the majority of neuroscience experimental studies were done on males. It’s been like that for decades. We know very little about the female brain, and this is particularly a problem for the disorders that are more frequent in women than men, like depression and anxiety. Our study was designed to try to understand how — at a molecular level — these fluctuating sex hormone levels might increase the risk of anxiety and depression in women.”

The findings of this study may lead to advances in what molecules should be targeted with drug treatments, particularly for women with anxiety or depression.

Dr. Kundakovic holds a master’s degree in experimental pharmacology from the University of Belgrade in Serbia and a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular genetics from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The study, “Chromatin Organization in the Female Mouse Brain Fluctuates Across the Oestrous Cycle,” was published on the website of the journal Nature Communications. It may be accessed here.

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