Chronic stress takes its toll on everyone. But it may hit women harder (or at least differently) than men, much research finds. New studies in rodents show that females remain sensitive to ongoing stress longer than males do, as Susan Gaidos reports. It remains to be seen whether such results can explain the differences in rates of depression and anxiety disorders in men and women. (Perhaps women are more likely to discuss their symptoms and be diagnosed. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, disorders which may also be related to stress.) Still, the new work offers an intriguing idea: If stress induces distinct biochemical signaling in men and women, perhaps therapies should also be tailored to each sex.
Another fascinating line of research mentioned in Gaidos’ story involves altering female mice’s response to chronic stress (making it more like a male’s) by targeting DNA modifications known as epigenetic tags. Consisting of chemicals such as methyl groups, these tags are attached to DNA and influence gene activity. They seem like a perfect target for drugs. Epigenetic tags don’t change the underlying genes, just the instructions for turning those genes on or off, up or down. In the mice, scientists used enzymes to alter the chemical tags on genes involved in the response to chronic stress. It’s an exciting approach, one I’m sure many scientists will try in efforts to modulate the body’s response, not just to stress, but also to other threats to health. Maybe even to fat.
A woman’s extra fat can trigger metabolic changes in a developing fetus, Laura Beil reports. Beil describes the latest research about the risks faced by children of obese moms or moms who have gained too much weight while pregnant. Neurological effects are the new twist, and a scary one, given the prevalence of obesity among women of childbearing age. If borne out in further research, these studies will add yet another consequence to an already difficult problem: the U.S. obesity epidemic. That’s a problem that public health researchers have yet to solve. The new work suggests a reason for more urgency.