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Sexual violence may alter how the female brain works

A study with rodents suggests sexual aggression can elevate stress hormones in females and may affect the ability to learn or care for offspring.

“This study is important because we need to understand how sexual aggression affects all species,” says Tracey Shors, a psychology professor at Rutgers University. “We also need to know the consequences of this behavior in order for us to determine what we can do to help women learn to recover from sexual aggression and violence.”

To investigate the effect, Shors and colleagues paired prepubescent female rodents with sexually experienced males. The found that the females did not exhibit as much maternal behavior as females that did not have these aggressive social interactions.

Although there was no decrease in neurogenesis (brain cell production), fewer newly generated brain cells remained in females that didn’t express as much maternal behavior when compared to females that did learn to care for offspring.

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“Laboratory models used to measure stress in animals have traditionally looked at how stress affects males and have not reflected the kind of stress that young women experience,” she adds.

Bringing gender balance to research, Shors says, is why the National Institutes of Health is now requiring both male and female animals to be included in research studies in order to receive federal funding.

Women who experience sexual violence are more likely to suffer with depression, PTSD, and other mood disorders. Still, despite the undeniable connection between sexual trauma and mental health, little is known about how aggression affects the female brain.

In part, that’s because there has been no established laboratory model for studying the consequences of sexual aggression and behavior on brain function in females, says Shors, lead author of the study in Scientific Reports.

“We know very little about the brain mechanisms that account for the increase in depression and mood disorders among women who experience sexual trauma and aggression,” Shors says. “But with new approaches and attention to this issue, we can find out how the female brain responds to aggression and how to help women learn to recover from sexual violence.”

Source: Rutgers University