New Study Reveals How the Immune System Shapes the Developing Brain in a Sex-Specific Manner.

Researchers have long known that biological sex plays a role in determining an individual’s risk of developing brain disorders, but the mechanisms behind this connection have remained unclear. However, new research from the University of Maryland School of Medicine suggests that the immune system may be a key player in shaping the developing brain in a sex-specific manner.

The study, published in PNAS in February 2023, focused on a specific brain region that is larger in male rats than in females. When the researchers examined the brains of male and female rats, they found that immune cells in the female rats’ brains had formed more of the structures on their surface that immune cells use to eat other cells, called phagocytic cups. These immune cells were observed to be digesting neurons in the female rats’ brains, a phenomenon not seen in the male rats.

By blocking the immune cells’ ability to eat neurons in the female rats’ brains, the researchers were able to increase the size of the brain region in question, bringing it closer to the size seen in male rats. They also found that blocking the immune cells’ function affected female rats’ preference for the odors of male rats, which is an indicator of sexual partner preference in rodents.

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These findings suggest that the immune system may play a crucial role in shaping the developing brain in a sex-specific manner, which could help to explain why certain brain diseases occur more commonly in one sex than the other. Understanding these mechanisms in greater detail could lead to new treatments or preventive measures for conditions like autism, anxiety, depression, and migraines.

The researchers involved in this study are part of the newly formed University of Maryland-Medicine Institute for Neuroscience Discovery (UM-MIND), which was founded to bring together basic and clinical scientists to better facilitate translating discoveries about the brain into new treatments for brain diseases. The institute’s other focus areas include neurotrauma and brain injury, as well as aging and neurodegeneration.

Overall, this study represents an important step forward in understanding the complex interplay between biological sex, the immune system, and brain development. By shedding light on these mechanisms, researchers may be able to develop more targeted and effective treatments for brain disorders in the future.


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