Senior author Zhen Yan, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics in the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and colleagues found that the enzyme aromatase, which produces estradiol, an estrogen hormone, in the brain, is responsible for female stress resilience.
"If we could find compounds similar to estrogen that could be administered without causing hormonal side effects, they could prove to be a very effective treatment for stress-related problems in males," Yan said in a statement.
The stressors used in the experiments mimicked challenging and stressful, but not dangerous, experiences that humans face, such as those causing frustration and feelings of being under pressure, Yan said.
By manipulating the amount of estrogen produced in the brain, the researchers said they were able to make the males respond to stress more like females and the females respond more like males.
"When estrogen signaling in the brains of females was blocked, stress exhibited detrimental effects on them," Yan said. "When estrogen signaling was activated in males, the detrimental effects of stress were blocked. We still found the protective effect of estrogen in female rats whose ovaries were removed."
This suggested the estrogen produced in the brain protected against the detrimental effects of stress, Yan said.
The study was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
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