Inflammatory Signals and Sexual Differentiation of the Brain
- Margaret M. McCarthyMargaret M. McCarthyDepartment of Pharmacology, University of Maryland School of Medicine
Sex differences in the brain are established by the differential gonadal steroid hormonal milieu experienced by developing male and female fetuses and newborns. Androgen production by the testis starts in males prior to birth resulting in a brief developmental window during which the brain is exposed to high levels of steroid. Androgens and aromatized estrogens program the developing brain toward masculinized physiology and behavior that is then manifest in adulthood. In rodents, the perinatal programming of sex-specific adult mating behavior provides a model system for exploring the mechanistic origins of brain sex differences.
Microglia are resident in the brain and provide innate immunity. Previously considered restricted to response to injury, these cells are now thought to be major contributors to the sculpting of developing neural circuits. This role extends to being an important component of the sexual differentiation process and has opened the door for exploration into myriad other aspects of neuroimmunity and inflammation as possible determinants of sex differences. In humans, males are at greater risk for more frequent and/or more severe neuropsychiatric and neurological disorders of development, many of which include prenatal inflammation as an additional risk factor. Emerging clinical and preclinical evidence suggests male brains experience a higher inflammatory tone early in development, and this may have its origins in the maternal immune system. Collectively, these disparate observations coalesce into a coherent picture in which brain development diverges in males versus females due to a combination of gonadal steroid action and neuroinflammation, and the latter increases the risk to males of developmental disorders.