Sex differences in traumatic stress response
Contributed by Lily Johnson-Ulrich @hyenacognition & Apryl Pooley @AprylPooley
Animals, Anxiety, Depression, Experimental, Fundamental research, Lab, LGBTQIA+, Medicine, Mental health, Neurobiology, North America, Psychology, PTSD, Queer, Recovering alcoholic, Social justice, Trauma survivor, Woman
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Apryl E. Pooley, Rebecca C. Benjamin, Susheela Sreedhar, Andrew L. Eagle, Alfred J. Robison, Michelle S. Mazei-Robison, S. Marc Breedlove and Cynthia L. Jordan. 2018. Sex differences in the traumatic stress response: PTSD symptoms in women recapitulated in female rats. Biology of Sex Differences 9, 31. link
Slide 1: Researcher’s Background
Apryl E. Pooley earned her PhD in Neuroscience from Michigan State University, where she studied the neurobiology of trauma.
PB: Why did you become a biologist?
AP: At first, I was just really curious about how living things worked. I took an intro to genetics class my freshman year of college and was blown away by all of things going on inside my body that I had no idea about. I just really loved biology classes and thought it was all fascinating. Then, as I started to learn more about mental health issues, including my own, I got really interested in neurobiology and how research could have real-world impacts in helping people who are struggling with mental health issues.
PB: What is your favorite part about your job?
AP: My favorite part about my work on trauma and PTSD is constantly learning new things every day, from my own research and from the other scientists, scholars, healers, and survivors I have the privilege of learning from. And then being able to use what I’ve learned to raise awareness for the effects of trauma, to help trauma survivors understand that what they’re experiencing is normal and has an explanation, and to help inform policies and practices that create a more trauma-informed society for all.
PB: What obstacles have you overcome to get where you are?
AP: As a complex trauma survivor living with PTSD and other trauma-related issues, I have overcome many obstacles to my survival, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and alcoholism. As a queer woman in science, I have overcome obstacles to my education and professional success, including not being taken seriously by male colleagues, internalized homophobia and misogyny, and continually struggling to get my research funded because studying PTSD in women is not a priority in the field.
PB: What advice do you have for aspiring biologists?
AP: Find work that energizes you, that you have a passion for, and follow opportunities that align with your core values and purpose. Prioritize your own health and well-being, and you will do better science.
PB: Do you feel that any dimension of your identity is invisible or under-represented/marginalized in STEM?
AP: Yes. In general, women are underrepresented in STEM in our societal narrative (e.g. when people think of a “scientist” they generally think of men), but I was lucky to have some amazing mentors who are women I could look up to as a young scientist. I did not, however, see any LGBTQ+ representation in my field and that would have been so helpful to me. Additionally, mental health and addiction issues were kind of an “open secret” in that it was expected that scientists in academia would have stress-related problems or drink too much, but nobody was talking about these things in an honest way without stigma, or offering support, or creating an environment that promoted health and well-being.
Slide 2: Research Overview
Take home message of study
This project examined the effects of traumatic stress in both male (sperm producing) and female (egg producing) rats. Pooley made the novel discovery that trauma has divergent sex-specific effects at the behavioral, physiological, and cellular levels. While male rats showed typical PTSD-like responses, females rats showed depressive-like responses to an acute traumatic stressor and these behaviors correlated with differences in the activity of key brain regions.
Pooley’s research uses Sprague-Dawley rats, a strain of rats commonly used in medical research. Because trauma exposure is generally an unpredictable event, most clinical PTSD studies in humans are retrospective; thus, it is not known whether many of the functional, structural, and chemical brain abnormalities associated with PTSD are a consequence of the disorder or constitute a pre-existing condition that predisposes a person to PTSD. For this reason, animal models of PTSD are invaluable in examining the pathophysiology of PTSD.
Slide 3: Key Research Points
Figure 2A from Pooley et al. 2018 compares the average max ASR, a measure of startle response (y-axis), for male (left side of plot) and female rats (right side of plot) that were either exposed to a single prolonged stress (SPS) or who were not exposed to a single prolonged stress (Ctrl). Male rats show a significant startle response after exposure to single prolonged stress (SPS) whereas female rats do not.
Men and women respond differently to traumatic stress, but the neurobiological basis for this is not understood. Diagnoses and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would likely benefit by understanding these sex differences. This research may pave the way for the development of new sex-specific diagnostic tools and treatments for men and women with PTSD.