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1.  Sex differences in mood disorders: perspectives from humans and rodent models 
Mood disorders are devastating, often chronic illnesses characterized by low mood, poor affect, and anhedonia. Notably, mood disorders are approximately twice as prevalent in women compared to men. If sex differences in mood are due to underlying biological sex differences, a better understanding of the biology is warranted to develop better treatment or even prevention of these debilitating disorders. In this review, our goals are to: 1) summarize the literature related to mood disorders with respect to sex differences in prevalence, 2) introduce the corticolimbic brain network of mood regulation, 3) discuss strategies and challenges of modeling mood disorders in mice, 4) discuss mechanisms underlying sex differences and how these can be tested in mice, and 5) discuss how our group and others have used a translational approach to investigate mechanisms underlying sex differences in mood disorders in humans and mice.
PMCID: PMC4268901  PMID: 25520774
Major depressive disorder; Sex difference; Corticolimbic; Somatostatin; Four core genotypes (FCG); Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
2.  Sex chromosome complement regulates expression of mood-related genes 
Studies on major depressive and anxiety disorders suggest dysfunctions in brain corticolimbic circuits, including altered gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and modulatory (serotonin and dopamine) neurotransmission. Interestingly, sexual dimorphisms in GABA, serotonin, and dopamine systems are also reported. Understanding the mechanisms behind these sexual dimorphisms may help unravel the biological bases of the heightened female vulnerability to mood disorders. Here, we investigate the contribution of sex-related factors (sex chromosome complement, developmental gonadal sex, or adult circulating hormones) to frontal cortex expression of selected GABA-, serotonin-, and dopamine-related genes.
As gonadal sex is determined by sex chromosome complement, the role of sex chromosomes cannot be investigated individually in humans. Therefore, we used the Four Core Genotypes (FCG) mouse model, in which sex chromosome complement and gonadal sex are artificially decoupled, to examine the expression of 13 GABA-related genes, 6 serotonin- and dopamine-related genes, and 8 associated signal transduction genes under chronic stress conditions. Results were analyzed by three-way ANOVA (sex chromosome complement × gonadal sex × circulating testosterone). A global perspective of gene expression changes was provided by heatmap representation and gene co-expression networks to identify patterns of transcriptional activities related to each main factor.
We show that under chronic stress conditions, sex chromosome complement influenced GABA/serotonin/dopamine-related gene expression in the frontal cortex, with XY mice consistently having lower gene expression compared to XX mice. Gonadal sex and circulating testosterone exhibited less pronounced, more complex, and variable control over gene expression. Across factors, male conditions were associated with a tightly co-expressed set of signal transduction genes.
Under chronic stress conditions, sex-related factors differentially influence expression of genes linked to mood regulation in the frontal cortex. The main factor influencing expression of GABA-, serotonin-, and dopamine-related genes was sex chromosome complement, with an unexpected pro-disease effect in XY mice relative to XX mice. This effect was partially opposed by gonadal sex and circulating testosterone, although all three factors influenced signal transduction pathways in males. Since GABA, serotonin, and dopamine changes are also observed in other psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, these findings have broader implications for the understanding of sexual dimorphism in adult psychopathology.
PMCID: PMC4175487  PMID: 24199867
GABA; Serotonin; Dopamine; Four Core Genotypes mice; Anxiety; Depression
3.  The Role of Genetic Sex in Affect Regulation and Expression of GABA-Related Genes Across Species 
Although circulating hormones and inhibitory gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-related factors are known to affect mood, considerable knowledge gaps persist for biological mechanisms underlying the female bias in mood disorders. Here, we combine human and mouse studies to investigate sexual dimorphism in the GABA system in the context of major depressive disorder (MDD) and then use a genetic model to dissect the role of sex-related factors in GABA-related gene expression and anxiety-/depressive-like behaviors in mice. First, using meta-analysis of gene array data in human postmortem brain (N = 51 MDD subjects, 50 controls), we show that the previously reported down-regulation in MDD of somatostatin (SST), a marker of a GABA neuron subtype, is significantly greater in women with MDD. Second, using gene co-expression network analysis in control human subjects (N = 214; two frontal cortex regions) and expression quantitative trait loci mapping (N = 170 subjects), we show that expression of SST and the GABA-synthesizing enzymes glutamate decarboxylase 67 (GAD67) and GAD65 are tightly co-regulated and influenced by X-chromosome genetic polymorphisms. Third, using a rodent genetic model [Four Core Genotypes (FCG) mice], in which genetic and gonadal sex are artificially dissociated (N ≥ 12/group), we show that genetic sex (i.e., X/Y-chromosome) influences both gene expression (lower Sst, Gad67, Gad65 in XY mice) and anxiety-like behaviors (higher in XY mice). This suggests that in an intact male animal, the observed behavior represents the outcomes of male genetic sex increasing and male-like testosterone decreasing anxiety-like behaviors. Gonadal sex was the only factor influencing depressive-like behavior (gonadal males < gonadal females). Collectively, these combined human and mouse studies provide mechanistic insight into sexual dimorphism in mood disorders, and specifically demonstrate an unexpected role of male-like factors (XY genetic sex) on GABA-related genes and anxiety-like behaviors.
PMCID: PMC3775314  PMID: 24062698
GABA; genetic sex; mood; somatostatin; anxiety; depression
4.  Neonatal testosterone partially organizes sex differences in stress-induced emotionality in mice 
Neurobiology of Disease  2012;46(2):486-496.
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a debilitating disorder of altered mood regulation. Despite well established sex differences in MDD prevalence, the mechanism underlying the increased female vulnerability remains unknown. Although evidence suggests an influence of adult circulating hormone levels on mood (i.e. activational effects of hormones), MDD prevalence is consistently higher in women across life stages (and therefore hormonal states), suggesting that additional underlying structural or biological differences place women at higher risk. Studies in human subjects and in rodent models suggest a developmental origin for mood disorders, and interestingly, a developmental process also establishes sex differences in the brain. Hence, based on these parallel developmental trajectories, we hypothesized that a proportion of the female higher vulnerability to MDD may originate from the differential organization of mood regulatory neural networks early in life (i.e. organizational effects of hormones). To test this hypothesis in a rodent system, we took advantage of a well-established technique used in the field of sexual differentiation (neonatal injection with testosterone) to masculinize sexually dimorphic brain regions in female mice. We then investigated adult behavioral consequences relating to emotionality by comparing neonatal testosterone-treated females to normal males and females. Under baseline/trait conditions, neonatal testosterone treatment of female mice did not influence adult emotionality, but masculinized adult locomotor activity, as revealed by the activational actions of hormones. Conversely, the increased vulnerability of female mice to develop high emotionality following unpredictable chronic mild stress (UCMS) was partially masculinized by neonatal testosterone exposure, with no effect on post-UCMS locomotion. The elevated female UCMS-induced vulnerability did not differ between adult hormone treated groups. These results demonstrate that sex differences in adult emotionality in mice are partially caused by the organizational effects of sex hormones during development, hence supporting a developmental hypothesis of the human adult female prevalence of MDD.
PMCID: PMC3323718  PMID: 22394611
depression; emotionality; testosterone; unpredictable chronic mild stress; sex difference; development
5.  Social Status and Sex Effects on Neural Morphology in Damaraland Mole-Rats, Fukomys damarensis 
Brain, Behavior and Evolution  2011;77(4):291-298.
We previously reported that in a eusocial rodent, the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), traditional neural sex differences were absent; instead, neural dimorphisms were associated with breeding status. Here we examined the same neural regions previously studied in naked mole-rats in a second eusocial species, the Damaraland mole-rat (Fukomys damarensis). Damaraland mole-rats live in social groups with breeding restricted to a small number of animals. However, colony sizes are much smaller in Damaraland mole-rats than in naked mole-rats and there is consequently less reproductive skew. In this sense, Damaraland mole-rats may be considered intermediate in social organization between naked mole-rats and more traditional laboratory rodents. We report that, as in naked mole-rats, breeding Damaraland mole-rats have larger volumes of the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus than do subordinates, with no effect of sex on these measures. Thus, these structures may play special roles in breeders of eusocial species. However, in contrast to what was seen in naked mole-rats, we also found sex differences in Damaraland mole-rats: volume of the medial amygdala and motoneuron number in Onuf's nucleus were both greater in males than in females, with no significant effect of breeding status. Thus, both sex and breeding status influence neural morphology in Damaraland mole-rats. These findings are in accord with the observed sex differences in body weight and genitalia in Damaraland but not naked mole-rats. We hypothesize that the increased sexual dimorphism in Damaraland mole-rats relative to naked mole-rats is related to reduced reproductive skew.
PMCID: PMC3182041  PMID: 21701152
Bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; Damaraland mole-rat; Medial amygdala; Naked mole-rat; Onuf's nucleus; Paraventricular nucleus; Sex difference; Social status
6.  Social and Hormonal Triggers of Neural Plasticity in Naked Mole-Rats 
Behavioural brain research  2010;218(1):234-239.
Naked mole-rats are eusocial rodents that live in large social groups with a strict reproductive hierarchy. In each colony only a few individuals breed; all others are non-reproductive subordinates. We previously showed that breeders have increased volume of several brain regions linked to reproduction: the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN), the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTp), and the medial amygdala (MeA). Breeders also have more large motoneurons in Onuf’s nucleus (ON) in the spinal cord, a cell group innervating perineal muscles that attach to the genitalia. Here, we sought to determine triggers for the neural changes seen in breeders. Specifically, we compared four groups of animals: subordinates, paired animals that did not reproduce, gonadally intact breeders, and gonadectomized breeders. We find that pairing alone is sufficient to cause breeder-like changes in volume of the PVN and cell size distribution in ON. In contrast, increases in BSTp volume were seen only in animals that actually reproduced. Those changes that were seen in successful breeders appear to be independent of gonadal steroids because long-term gonadectomy did not reverse the breeder-like neural changes in the PVN, BSTp or ON, although a trend for gonadectomized animals having larger MeA volumes was detected. Thus, neural changes associated with breeding status in naked mole-rats may be triggered by different aspects of the social and reproductive environment; once changes occur they are largely independent of gonadal hormones and may be permanent.
PMCID: PMC3022096  PMID: 21130812
bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; naked mole-rat; neuroplasticity; Onuf’s nucleus; paraventricular nucleus; social status
7.  Neuroendocrinology and Sexual Differentiation in Eusocial Mammals 
Frontiers in neuroendocrinology  2009;30(4):519-533.
Sexual differentiation of the mammalian nervous system has been studied intensively for over 25 years. Most of what we know, however, comes from work on relatively non-social species in which direct reproduction (i.e., production of offspring) is virtually the only route to reproductive success. In social species, an individual’s inclusive fitness may include contributions to the gene pool that are achieved by supporting the reproductive efforts of close relatives; this feature is most evident in eusocial organisms. Here, we review what is known about neuroendocrine mechanisms, sexual differentiation, and effects of social status on the brain and spinal cord in two eusocial mammals: the naked mole-rat and Damaraland mole-rat. These small rodents exhibit the most rigidly organized reproductive hierarchy among mammals, with reproduction suppressed in a majority of individuals. Our findings suggest that eusociality may be associated with a relative lack of sex differences and a reduced influence of gonadal hormones on some functions to which these hormones are usually tightly linked. We also identify neural changes accompanying a change in social and reproductive status, and discuss the implications of our findings for understanding the evolution of sex differences and the neuroendocrinology of reproductive suppression.
PMCID: PMC2748139  PMID: 19416733
naked mole-rat; Damaraland mole-rat; sex difference; social status; reproductive hierarchy; eusociality; social system
8.  Social Structure Predicts Genital Morphology in African Mole-Rats 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(10):e7477.
African mole-rats (Bathyergidae, Rodentia) exhibit a wide range of social structures, from solitary to eusocial. We previously found a lack of sex differences in the external genitalia and morphology of the perineal muscles associated with the phallus in the eusocial naked mole-rat. This was quite surprising, as the external genitalia and perineal muscles are sexually dimorphic in all other mammals examined. We hypothesized that the lack of sex differences in naked mole-rats might be related to their unusual social structure.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We compared the genitalia and perineal muscles in three African mole-rat species: the naked mole-rat, the solitary silvery mole-rat, and the Damaraland mole-rat, a species considered to be eusocial, but with less reproductive skew than naked mole-rats. Our findings support a relationship between social structure, mating system, and sexual differentiation. Naked mole-rats lack sex differences in genitalia and perineal morphology, silvery mole-rats exhibit sex differences, and Damaraland mole-rats are intermediate.
The lack of sex differences in naked mole-rats is not an attribute of all African mole-rats, but appears to have evolved in relation to their unusual social structure and reproductive biology.
PMCID: PMC2759003  PMID: 19829697

Results 1-8 (8)