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Women have higher stress resilience than men

 High-level ‘executive’ processes may be impaired in men under chronic stress 

13 July 2013

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Women are naturally better than men in responding to chronic stress, a scientific study has found.

It found that men experience impaired short-term memory under repeated episodes of stress, signifying a disturbance in the area of the brain responsible for working memory, attention, decision making, emotion and other high-level ‘executive’ processes.

Women, by contrast, had no difficulty in remembering and recognising objects they had previously been shown because of the protective effects of estrogen.

The findings by University at Buffalo professor Zhen Yan and colleagues come amid increased discussions about the lack of gender parity in law firm partnerships.

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, noted earlier this year that some law firms are promoting 'mediocre' men and losing talented women by failing to embrace flexible working practices.

“If career progression was based on pure merit, some male business leaders and law firm senior partners would never even have seen the paintings on the boardroom wall,” she said.

“This is disappointing for the talented women who lose out, but is also damaging to the organisations which lose what they have to offer.”

Impact of stress

In the study, young female rats exposed to one week of periodic physical restraint stress showed no impairment in their ability to remember and recognise objects that they had previously been shown. By contrast, young males exposed to the same stress suffered from an impaired short-term memory.

The researchers noted that an impairment in the ability to correctly remember a familiar object signifies some disturbance in the signalling ability of the glutamate receptor in the prefrontal cortex – the brain region that controls working memory, attention, decision making, emotion and other high-level ‘executive’ processes.

Last year, research by Yan and colleagues showed that repeated stress results in loss of the glutamate receptor in the prefrontal cortex of young males.

The current paper shows that the glutamate receptor in the prefrontal cortex of stressed females is intact. The findings provide more support for a growing body of research demonstrating that the glutamate receptor is the molecular target of stress, which mediates the stress response.

The stressors used in the experiments mimic 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 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,” explained Yan. “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,” said Yan. “It suggests that it might be estrogen produced in the brain that protects against the detrimental effects of stress.”

In the current study, Yan and colleagues found that the enzyme aromatase, which produces estradiol, an estrogen hormone, in the brain, is responsible for female stress resilience. They found that aromatase levels are significantly higher in the prefrontal cortex of female rats.

“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,” she said.

Yan added that stress can be a trigger for the development of psychiatric disorders in vulnerable individuals.

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