Alzheimer’s disease and depression are more common in women, while Parkinson’s and autism are more common in men. To brain scientists, that suggests there’s a sex hormone component underlying those conditions.
That’s why a group of female neuroscientists at the University of B.C. Brain Research Centre held a symposium Thursday, to share some of their research into the differences between the genders. Health Minister Kevin Falcon gave a short talk at the opening in which he half-joked that “it would be a positive thing” to learn more about the female mind. But after giving a brief speech about the government’s commitment to health research, he had to leave because of other commitments.
Liisa Galea, a professor of psychology at UBC, said hormones play a powerful role during puberty, pregnancy and menopause. Hormones, which crash to low levels after childbirth, are also responsible for contributing to postpartum depression, affecting up to 15 per cent of women. Even men can get postpartum depression, possibly linked to lower levels of male hormones.
Testosterone, the male hormone, is showing signs of being useful in treating depression. But for women the jury is still out on whether estrogen, particularly what type of estrogen, may be beneficial for treating depression and cognitive decline.
“There have been a number of studies showing that the type of mothering we receive can mould who we are,” Galea said, noting that in studies she conducts in mice, nurturing licking behaviour appears to be passed on to the next generation of women.
Teresa Liu-Ambrose, an assistant professor in the department of physical therapy, said cognitive decline in aging is far from being an inevitability as her research proves that since the brain is so pliable, it responds to exercise just as muscles throughout the body respond.
Exercise promotes the growth of cells and blood vessels and protects the brain by controlling blood pressure. In one of her research studies, Liu-Ambrose showed that 65-to 75-year old women who did strength (circuit) training once or twice a week for a year performed better on decision-making tests and in executive functions such as financial tasks. Even one session of strength training a week showed not only a cognitive benefit but also improved physical well-being, she said.
“Resistance training promotes a sense of hope and empowerment that conspire to help women retain their cognitive capacity and autonomy,” she said, adding that exercise may well become the prescription of the future for stalling age-related cognitive decline or even Alzheimer’s disease.
Liu-Ambrose said one of the differences between men and women when it comes to exercise is that it would appear men have to work a little harder to derive the same cognitive benefits from fitness training.
Pam Arstikaitis, a PhD student, said generally speaking women use both sides of the brain while men predominantly use the left hemisphere to process information. Men have a greater number of cells in the brain but it doesn’t cause any difference in intelligence, since women create more connections and use them more effectively.
by Pamela Fayerman
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