Why does Alzheimer’s disease afflict so many more women than men? Why do some women report memory and concentration problems during menopause?
Science has little answer, but the reason is simple and frustrating: Over the decades, there has been relatively little research on the female brain.Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara and Emily Jacobs, associate professor of neuroscience, point to two main reasons for this discrepancy.
“I don’t think this pattern of disrespecting women’s health was done out of malice,” she said.
“Science is a human endeavour. The questions we ask and the way we design our research are products of the people who ask them. Ultimately, scientists cannot answer questions they cannot see. In a field like neuroscience, where more than 85% of the faculty are men, menopause may have been invisible.”
Layla Rapp, professor of feminist studies and interim dean of the Graduate Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, puts it more bluntly. “There’s a history of talking about the female brain from a very misogynistic perspective,” she said.
Rupp is the organizer of the Feminist Futures Initiative and co-sponsor of Jacobs’ talk Tuesday, October 26, at 4:00 pm in the Pacific View Room at the UC Santa Barbara Library. “The Scientific Body of Knowledge: Whose Body Does It Serve?” describes her lab’s research into how
Part of the library’s Pacific View series, this lecture is free and open to the public. It will also be streamed live on the UCSB Library Facebook page.
“Pregnancy, the menstrual cycle, menopause: all these features in women’s lives have been largely ignored by science.
“Neuroscientists are often so engrossed in the complexity of the brain that they forget that it is part of a larger biological system. Well, it does in a pretty big way: About half of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex (the area just behind your forehead) contain estrogen receptors. “
According to Jacobs, medical researchers have traditionally viewed the female brain, and to some extent the female body, as constantly in flux with hormonal changes and therefore “unrecognizable.” This idea that women are inherently more variable than men because of their hormones “is unfounded in the data, but there is still this lore,” she said. You are ignoring the fact that you are.”
That misunderstanding, she argued, has led to studies of flawed designs that fail to answer important questions.
“One of the biggest challenges in neuroscience is understanding what happens to the brain as we age,” she said. “The outdated model of taking a group of people over the age of 65 and comparing it to a group of young adults has been used throughout research programs. It is a rooted historical artifact, not based on biology.
“Neuroscientists have learned a lot about the aging brain, but their research practices have skipped over menopause and blinded us to the kinds of changes that are unfolding early in the aging process. increase.”
Jacobs and her team seek to fill that gap by studying how a woman’s brain changes during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopausal transitions. I was fascinated by this field of study at school and completed my PhD there.
“I was in a great lab investigating the role of dopamine in human brain function,” she recalls. “While studying for my qualifying exam, I came across a small study in rodents that found that the amount of estrogen in the mice could regulate the amount of dopamine in the brain. I fell to the floor. Few people in my field thought about sex hormones that way.
“As I did more research on menopause, I realized that it was systemic. Nearly every aspect of brain health in women is less well-studied than in men,” Jacobs said. “My lab is dedicated to modifying courses so that men and women can fully benefit from our research efforts. The students who figured out the cause, it brings me great joy.”
Whereas Jacobs focuses on a holistic view of the brain and body, Rapp takes a similar approach in gender-related research here at UC Santa Barbara. Founded in 2018, the institute builds connections among researchers across campus working on feminist issues. We hope that scholars from different fields can exchange knowledge and ideas, and work together to build a better future.
“Having entered feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, we want to connect with a younger generation of leaders and empower future feminist leadership.” , to develop a center for feminist futures that sponsors impactful research and programming.”
To date, the initiative has sponsored or co-sponsored several dialogues on feminist issues, including a 2020 campus visit by Anita Hill. I’m about to start looking for my first director.
Rupp said she was thrilled to be asked to co-sponsor Jacobs’ talk, and Jacobs is equally excited about the collaboration. and pointed to the need for interdisciplinary research on the barriers facing women scientists.