On the first week of February, researchers from around the world gathered in Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Tübingen to discuss the relationship between sex hormones and the brain. It was truly inspiring to see clinicians (gynecologist, psychiatrist, urologist), neuroscientists, psychologists and biologists actively interacting with each other. As a participant, I really enjoyed the talks and would like to share some studies that were presented.
#1. Ovarian hormone fluctuation as a risk model for postpartum mood disorders.
Julia Sacher, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
After giving birth, the estrogen concentration in a women’s body drops dramatically by 500~1000 fold. The talk was on postpartum mood disorder and its relationship with the estrogen drop. Postpartum depression was categorized as mental disorder only in 2013 and is still under-diagnosed. It was nice to see some efforts done to investigate the disorder.
#2. Mental health effects of hormonal contraceptives.
Inger Sundström Poromaa, University of Uppsala
There seems to be an on going discussion about the influence of oral contraceptives on mood. Some report that taking pills may lead to negative mood, even depression, some report that it relieves premenstrual syndrome. The presented study reported that with a small effect size, pills can cause mood symptoms in women with ongoing or previous mood disorder. The speaker also said that educated Swedish women have lower rate of pill usage compared to uneducated women which was interesting.
#3. Menstrual cycle dependent changes in cognitive function.
Belinda Pletzer, University of Salzburg
This longitudinal study showed that gray matter volume of hippocampus and basal ganglia changes over the course of menstrual cycle as evidenced by structural MRI studies. They correlated grey matter volume with cognitive function, such as navigation and language tasks. For me, the difficult question is what do the volume changes imply?
#4. Several talks and posters were focused on sex differences.
Normally, I am ignorant about the topic because it seems impossible to control for confounding variables. After all, what is the whole point of searching for sex differences? But later I learned that psychiatric disorders appear in different ratios. There are more women suffering from depression and anxiety disorder and more men with autism and ADHD. Perhaps, it is worth while taking a note on the different epidemiology of mental disorder between sexes.
#5. One of the participants was a sociologist with a focus on science and technology studies.
Her ongoing research focused on how the transgender brain is seen from a scientists’ perspective and trans’ perspective. I think how scientific knowledge is influenced by society and how society is influenced by science is an important topic and should be discussed more often within scientific community.
* ‘Sex’ versus ‘gender’
The topic is widely debated and there is no concrete answer on how the two words should be used. The reason I chose to use ‘sex’ instead of ‘gender’ in this article is merely because the event was called ‘Sex hormone and the brain’.
Sacher, J, et al. Elevated brain monoamine oxidase A binding in the early postpartum period. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2010;67: 468-474.
Poromaa, IS and Segebladh B. Adverse mood symptoms with oral contraceptives. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand 2012;91:420-427.
Barth C, Villringer A, Sacher J. Sex hormones affect neurotransmitters and shape the adult female brain during hormonal transition periods. Front Neurosci 2015;9:37.
Ju-young Lee is currently in the Neural and Behavioral Neuroscience Masters Program in Tübingen, Germany.