Researchers from Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Suffolk University in Boston studied 12 healthy, premenopausal Caucasian women along with a similar group of healthy men. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the scientists monitored the brain activity of subjects as they viewed stress-triggering images. The women were scanned twice—once at the beginning of their menstrual cycle and once at ovulation.
At the beginning of a woman’s cycle, her response to stress was equivalent to a man’s response. In contrast, at ovulation, the female reaction to stress was much lower than the male’s. “We found that women have been endowed with a natural hormonal capacity to regulate the stress response in the brain that differs from men,” said lead study author Jill Goldstein, PhD, director of research for the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of psychiatry and medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Therefore, understanding sex differences in stress regulation in the brain can provide clues to understanding the nature of [chronic diseases affected by stress]. Mapping out sex-specific physiology in the brain will also provide the basis for the development of sex-specific treatments for these diseases.”