Many neurological and psychiatric disorders exhibit gender disparities, and sex differences in the brain likely explain some of these effects. Recent work in rodents points to a role for epigenetics in the development or maintenance of neural sex differences, although genome-wide studies have so far been lacking. Here we review the existing literature on epigenetics and brain sexual differentiation and present preliminary analyses on the genome-wide distribution of histone-3 lysine-4 trimethylation in a sexually dimorphic brain region in male and female mice. H3K4me3 is a histone mark primarily organized as 'peaks' surrounding the transcription start site of active genes. We microdissected the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and preoptic area (BNST/POA) in adult male and female mice and used ChIP-Seq to compare the distribution of H3K4me3 throughout the genome. We found 248 genes and loci with a significant sex difference in H3K4me3. Of these, the majority (71%) had larger H3K4me3 peaks in females. Comparisons with existing databases indicate that genes and loci with increased H3K4me3 in females are associated with synaptic function and with expression atlases from related brain areas. Based on RT-PCR, only a minority of genes with a sex difference in H3K4me3 has detectable sex differences in expression at baseline conditions. Together with previous findings, our data suggest that there may be sex biases in the use of epigenetic marks. Such biases could underlie sex differences in vulnerabilities to drugs or diseases that disrupt specific epigenetic processes.
Moderate to severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects 8-20 percent of premenopausal women. Previous studies suggest that high dietary vitamin D intake may reduce risk. However, vitamin D status is influenced by both dietary vitamin D intake and sunlight exposure and the association of vitamin D status with PMS remains unclear.
The biological basis for sex differences in brain function and disease susceptibility is poorly understood. Examining the role of gonadal hormones in brain sexual differentiation may provide important information about sex differences in neural health and development. Permanent masculinization of brain structure, function, and disease is induced by testosterone prenatally in males, but the possible mediation of these effects by long-term changes in the epigenome is poorly understood.
Naked mole-rats are highly social rodents that live in large groups and exhibit a strict reproductive and social hierarchy. Only a few animals in each colony breed; the remainder are non-reproductive and are socially subordinate to breeders. We have examined androgen receptor immunoreactive (AR+) cells in brain regions comprising the recently described social decision-making network in subordinate and breeder naked mole-rats of both sexes. We find that subordinates have a significantly higher percentage of AR+ cells in all brain regions expressing this protein. By contrast, there were no significant effects of sex and no sex-by-status interactions on the percentage of AR+ cells. Taken together with previous findings, the present data complete a systematic assessment of the distribution of AR protein in the social decision-making network of the eusocial mammalian brain and demonstrate a significant role for social status in the regulation of this protein throughout many nodes of this network.
In naked mole-rat (NMR) colonies, breeding is monopolized by the queen and her consorts. Subordinates experience gonadal development if separated from the queen. To elucidate the neuroendocrine factors underlying reproductive suppression/development in NMRs, we quantified plasma gonadal steroids and GnRH-1- and kisspeptin-immunoreactive (ir) neurons in subordinate adults and in those allowed to develop into breeders, with or without subsequent gonadectomy. In males and females, respectively, plasma testosterone and progesterone are higher in breeders than in subordinates. No such distinction occurs for plasma estradiol; its presence after gonadectomy and its positive correlation with adrenal estradiol suggest an adrenal source. Numbers of GnRH-1-ir cell bodies do not differ between gonad-intact breeders and subordinates within or between the sexes. As in phylogenetically related guinea pigs, kisspeptin-ir processes pervade the internal and external zones of the median eminence. Their distribution is consistent with actions on GnRH-1 neurons at perikaryal and/or terminal levels. In previously investigated species, numbers of kisspeptin-ir cell bodies vary from substantial to negligible according to sex and/or reproductive state. NMRs are exceptional: irrespective of sex, reproductive state, or presence of gonads, substantial numbers of kisspeptin-ir cell bodies are detected in the rostral periventricular region of the third ventricle (RP3V) and in the anterior periventricular (PVa), arcuate, and dorsomedial hypothalamic nuclei. Nevertheless, the greater number in the RP3V/PVa of female breeders compared with female subordinates or male breeders suggests that emergence from a hypogonadotrophic state in females may involve kisspeptin-related mechanisms similar to those underlying puberty or seasonal breeding in other species.
Naturally occurring cell death is essential to the development of the mammalian nervous system. Although the importance of developmental cell death has been appreciated for decades, there is no comprehensive account of cell death across brain areas in the mouse. Moreover, several regional sex differences in cell death have been described for the ventral forebrain and hypothalamus, but it is not known how widespread the phenomenon is. We used immunohistochemical detection of activated caspase-3 to identify dying cells in the brains of male and female mice from postnatal day (P) 1 to P11. Cell death density, total number of dying cells, and regional volume were determined in 16 regions of the hypothalamus and ventral forebrain (the anterior hypothalamus, arcuate nucleus, anteroventral periventricular nucleus, medial preoptic nucleus, paraventricular nucleus, suprachiasmatic nucleus, and ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus; the basolateral, central, and medial amygdala; the lateral and principal nuclei of the bed nuclei of the stria terminalis; the caudate-putamen; the globus pallidus; the lateral septum; and the islands of Calleja). All regions showed a significant effect of age on cell death. The timing of peak cell death varied between P1 to P7, and the average rate of cell death varied tenfold among regions. Several significant sex differences in cell death and/or regional volume were detected. These data address large gaps in the developmental literature and suggest interesting region-specific differences in the prevalence and timing of cell death in the hypothalamus and ventral forebrain.
Bax is a pro-death protein that plays a crucial role in developmental neuronal cell death. Bax(-/-) mice exhibit increased neuron number and lack several neural sex differences. Here we examined the effects of Bax gene deletion on social behaviors (olfactory preference, social recognition, social approach and aggression) and the neural processing of olfactory cues. Bax deletion eliminated the normal sex difference in olfactory preference behavior. In the social recognition test, both genotypes discriminated a novel conspecific, but wild-type males and Bax(-/-) animals of both sexes spent much more time than wild-type females investigating stimulus animals. Similarly, Bax(-/-) mice were more sociable than wild-type mice in a social approach test. Bax deletion had no effect on aggression in a resident/intruder paradigm where males, regardless of genotype, exhibited a shorter latency to attack. Thus, the prevention of neuronal cell death by Bax gene deletion results in greater sociability as well as the elimination of sex differences in some social behaviors. To examine olfactory processing of socially relevant cues, we counted c-Fos-immunoreactive (Fos-ir) cells in several nodes of the accessory olfactory pathway after exposure to male-soiled or control bedding. In both genotypes, exposure to male-soiled bedding increased Fos-ir cells in the posterodorsal medial amygdala, principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and medial preoptic nucleus (MPN), and the response in the MPN was greater in females than in males. However, a reduction in Fos-ir cells was seen in the anteroventral periventricular nucleus of Bax(-/-) mice.
We previously reported that in a eusocial rodent, the naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber), traditional neural sex differences were absent; instead, neural dimorphisms were associated with breeding status. Here we examined the same neural regions previously studied in naked mole-rats in a second eusocial species, the Damaraland mole-rat (Fukomys damarensis). Damaraland mole-rats live in social groups with breeding restricted to a small number of animals. However, colony sizes are much smaller in Damaraland mole-rats than in naked mole-rats and there is consequently less reproductive skew. In this sense, Damaraland mole-rats may be considered intermediate in social organization between naked mole-rats and more traditional laboratory rodents. We report that, as in naked mole-rats, breeding Damaraland mole-rats have larger volumes of the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus than do subordinates, with no effect of sex on these measures. Thus, these structures may play special roles in breeders of eusocial species. However, in contrast to what was seen in naked mole-rats, we also found sex differences in Damaraland mole-rats: volume of the medial amygdala and motoneuron number in Onufs nucleus were both greater in males than in females, with no significant effect of breeding status. Thus, both sex and breeding status influence neural morphology in Damaraland mole-rats. These findings are in accord with the observed sex differences in body weight and genitalia in Damaraland but not naked mole-rats. We hypothesize that the increased sexual dimorphism in Damaraland mole-rats relative to naked mole-rats is related to reduced reproductive skew.
Naked mole-rats are eusocial rodents that live in large social groups with a strict reproductive hierarchy. In each colony only a few individuals breed; all others are non-reproductive subordinates. We previously showed that breeders have increased volume of several brain regions linked to reproduction: the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN), the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTp), and the medial amygdala (MeA). Breeders also have more large motoneurons in Onufs nucleus (ON) in the spinal cord, a cell group innervating perineal muscles that attach to the genitalia. Here, we sought to determine triggers for the neural changes seen in breeders. Specifically, we compared four groups of animals: subordinates, paired animals that did not reproduce, gonadally intact breeders, and gonadectomized breeders. We find that pairing alone is sufficient to cause breeder-like changes in volume of the PVN and cell size distribution in ON. In contrast, increases in BSTp volume were seen only in animals that actually reproduced. Those changes that were seen in successful breeders appear to be independent of gonadal steroids because long-term gonadectomy did not reverse the breeder-like neural changes in the PVN, BSTp or ON, although a trend for gonadectomized animals having larger MeA volumes was detected. Thus, neural changes associated with breeding status in naked mole-rats may be triggered by different aspects of the social and reproductive environment; once changes occur they are largely independent of gonadal hormones and may be permanent.
The Kiss1 gene and its product kisspeptin are important regulators of reproduction. In rodents, Kiss1 is expressed in the hypothalamic arcuate (ARC) and anteroventral periventricular (AVPV)/rostral periventricular (PeN) nuclei. In the AVPV/PeN, females have more Kiss1 and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) neurons than males. We explored the ontogeny of the Kiss1 sex difference, and the role of cell death in establishing Kiss1 and TH cell number. We also determined whether Kiss1 cells in AVPV/PeN coexpress TH. AVPV/PeN Kiss1 neurons were first detected in both sexes on postnatal d 10, but the Kiss1 sex difference did not emerge until postnatal d 12. The role of BAX-mediated apoptosis in generating this sex difference was tested in adult Bax knockout (KO) and wild-type mice. Deletion of Bax did not diminish the sex difference in Kiss1 expression in the AVPV/PeN. TH expression was sexually dimorphic in the AVPV of both wild-type and Bax KO mice but, unlike Kiss1, was not sexually dimorphic in the PeN of either genotype. Double-label analysis determined that most Kiss1 neurons coexpress TH mRNA, but many TH neurons do not coexpress Kiss1, especially in the PeN. These findings suggest that several subpopulations of TH cells reside within the AVPV/PeN, only one of which coexpresses Kiss1. In the ARC, Kiss1 cell number was markedly increased in Bax KO mice of both sexes, indicating that although BAX-dependent apoptosis does not generate the sex difference in either Kiss1 or TH expression in AVPV/PeN, BAX does importantly regulate Kiss1 cell number in the ARC.
Sex differences in the nervous system are found throughout the animal kingdom. Here, we discuss three prominent genetic models: nematodes, fruit flies, and mice. In all three, differential cell death is central to sexual differentiation and shared molecular mechanisms have been identified. Our knowledge of the precise function of neural sex differences lags behind. One fruitful approach to the function question is to contrast sexual differentiation in standard laboratory animals with differentiation in species exhibiting unique social and reproductive organizations. Advanced genetic strategies are also addressing this question in worms and flies, and may soon be applicable to vertebrates.
The bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) exhibits several sex differences that may be related to male sexual behavior and gender identity. In mice and rats, sex differences in the principal nucleus of the BNST (BNSTp) are due to sexually dimorphic cell death during perinatal life. Although testosterone treatment of newborn female rats increases BNSTp cell number, the relevant hormone metabolite(s) are not known, and the effect of testosterone on the development of BNSTp cell number in mice has not been examined.
Epigenetic changes in the nervous system are emerging as a critical component of enduring effects induced by early life experience, hormonal exposure, trauma and injury, or learning and memory. Sex differences in the brain are largely determined by steroid hormone exposure during a perinatal sensitive period that alters subsequent hormonal and nonhormonal responses throughout the lifespan. Steroid receptors are members of a nuclear receptor transcription factor superfamily and recruit multiple proteins that possess enzymatic activity relevant to epigenetic changes such as acetylation and methylation. Thus steroid hormones are uniquely poised to exert epigenetic effects on the developing nervous system to dictate adult sex differences in brain and behavior. Sex differences in the methylation pattern in the promoter of estrogen and progesterone receptor genes are evident in newborns and persist in adults but with a different pattern. Changes in response to injury and in methyl-binding proteins and steroid receptor coregulatory proteins are also reported. Many steroid-induced epigenetic changes are opportunistic and restricted to a single lifespan, but new evidence suggests endocrine-disrupting compounds can exert multigenerational effects. Similarly, maternal diet also induces transgenerational effects, but the impact is sex specific. The study of epigenetics of sex differences is in its earliest stages, with needed advances in understanding of the hormonal regulation of enzymes controlling acetylation and methylation, coregulatory proteins, transient versus stable DNA methylation patterns, and sex differences across the epigenome to fully understand sex differences in brain and behavior.
African mole-rats (Bathyergidae, Rodentia) exhibit a wide range of social structures, from solitary to eusocial. We previously found a lack of sex differences in the external genitalia and morphology of the perineal muscles associated with the phallus in the eusocial naked mole-rat. This was quite surprising, as the external genitalia and perineal muscles are sexually dimorphic in all other mammals examined. We hypothesized that the lack of sex differences in naked mole-rats might be related to their unusual social structure.
The principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNSTp) is larger in volume and contains more cells in male than female mice. These sex differences depend on testosterone and arise from a higher rate of cell death during early postnatal life in females. There is a delay of several days between the testosterone surge at birth and sexually dimorphic cell death in the BNSTp, suggesting that epigenetic mechanisms may be involved. We tested the hypothesis that chromatin remodeling plays a role in sexual differentiation of the BNSTp by manipulating the balance between histone acetylation and deacetylation using a histone deacetylase inhibitor. In the first experiment, a single injection of valproic acid (VPA) on the day of birth increased acetylation of histone H3 in the brain 24 h later. Next, males, females, and females treated neonatally with testosterone were administered VPA or saline on postnatal d 1 and 2 and killed at 21 d of age. VPA treatment did not influence volume or cell number of the BNSTp in control females but significantly reduced both parameters in males and testosterone-treated females. As a result, the sex differences were eliminated. VPA did not affect volume or cell number in the suprachiasmatic nucleus or the anterodorsal nucleus of the thalamus, which also did not differ between males and females. These findings suggest that a disruption in histone deacetylation may lead to long-term alterations in gene expression that block the masculinizing actions of testosterone in the BNSTp.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the "organizational hypothesis," this paper reviews work on sexual differentiation of the spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. Topics considered include the spinal nucleus of the bulbocavernosus, the ejaculation center, the cremaster nucleus, sensory and autonomic neurons, and pain. These relatively simple neural systems offer ample confirmation that early exposure to testicular hormones masculinizes the nervous system, including final common pathways. However, I also discuss findings that challenge, or at least stretch, the organizational hypothesis, with important implications for understanding sex differences throughout the nervous system.
Sexual differentiation of the mammalian nervous system has been studied intensively for over 25 years. Most of what we know, however, comes from work on relatively non-social species in which direct reproduction (i.e., production of offspring) is virtually the only route to reproductive success. In social species, an individuals inclusive fitness may include contributions to the gene pool that are achieved by supporting the reproductive efforts of close relatives; this feature is most evident in eusocial organisms. Here, we review what is known about neuroendocrine mechanisms, sexual differentiation, and effects of social status on the brain and spinal cord in two eusocial mammals: the naked mole-rat and Damaraland mole-rat. These small rodents exhibit the most rigidly organized reproductive hierarchy among mammals, with reproduction suppressed in a majority of individuals. Our findings suggest that eusociality may be associated with a relative lack of sex differences and a reduced influence of gonadal hormones on some functions to which these hormones are usually tightly linked. We also identify neural changes accompanying a change in social and reproductive status, and discuss the implications of our findings for understanding the evolution of sex differences and the neuroendocrinology of reproductive suppression.
Calbindin-D28 has been used as a marker for the sexually dimorphic nucleus of the preoptic area (SDN-POA). Males have a distinct cluster of calbindin-immunoreactive (ir) cells in the medial preoptic area (CALB-SDN) that is reduced or absent in females. However, it is not clear whether the sex difference is due to the absolute number of calbindin-ir cells or to cell position (that is, spread), and the cellular mechanisms underlying the sex difference are not known. We examined the number of cells in the CALB-SDN and surrounding regions of C57Bl/6 mice and used mice lacking the pro-death gene, Bax, to test the hypothesis that observed sex differences are due to cell death.
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