Gender and sex hormones affect the brain's pain response and more, according to new studies

nteractions with learning and memory and with brain cell growth--and these interactions are different in the brains of males and females. This work promises to lead to a more complete understanding of the effects of reproductive hormones in the brain. In particular, it may bring new insight into the confusing and seemingly contradictory effects of the use of estrogen by post-menopausal women on learning and memory. It may also help explain the mechanisms underlying gender differences in cognition and susceptibility to mental diseases.

At the University of Michigan , Jon-Kar Zubieta, MD, PhD, and his colleagues have been studying the effect of sex hormones on pain and stress-response systems in the brain. They have found that differences between men and women in the perception and experience of sustained pain--by itself, a physical and psychological stressor--may be due, in part, to the influence of reproductive hormones on the brain. These findings promise to lead to a greater understanding of how and why certain diseases characterized by chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia and TMJ, occur more often in women than in men.

Zubieta's research has focused on a particular neurochemical pathway in the brain--the mu-opioid neurotransmitter system--which uses endogenous chemicals called opioids (commonly known as endorphins and enkephalins) to send signals between brain cells to suppress the sensation of pain. When a stressful stimulus, such as sustained physical pain or severe emotional stress, threatens the well-being of the body, the brain releases these opioid peptides, which then bind to receptors (known as mu-opioid receptors) located in various regions throughout the brain. "The rapid activation of this system suppresses an individual's perception of a stressful event and the emotions that accompany it," explains Zubieta, "thus making the pain and stress more tolerable."

To study the mu-opioid neurotransmitter system, Zubieta and his colleag

Contact: Leah Ariniello
Society for Neuroscience

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