Check Up: Studying women's mood disorders

Posted: October 02, 2012

The federal government has given the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine $3.7 million to study how traumatic events in childhood interact with hormonal changes to affect women's mood disorders.

The five-year grant will be used to create the Center for the Study of Sex and Gender in Behavioral Health. It will be led by C. Neill Epperson, a reproductive psychiatrist and founder of the Penn Center for Women's Behavioral Wellness, and Tracy L. Bale, a neuroscientist.

Epperson and Bale said the new center will be a resource for researchers throughout the university who need to study how treatments or diseases affect men and women differently.

"It's not something that the average clinician or investigator thinks about," Bale said.

The center will focus on mood disorders in women, who are two to three times more likely than men to suffer from conditions such as anxiety and depression. (Men are much more prone to schizophrenia and autism.) Anxiety and depression also often are present in women with autoimmune disorders, gastrointestinal problems, and migraines, Epperson said.

Bale said she and Epperson are starting with women who have experienced a trauma such as rape or abuse early in life because they have the highest rate of affective disorders. The researchers are interested in hormones because the gender disparity doesn't occur until puberty, and emotional problems spike with pregnancy and menopause.

Bale studies how young mice respond to stress and has found that young females respond differently - their stress hormones go up - than males. They're also more likely to be stress-sensitive as adults.

Answering the question, "How do you model being molested by someone you trust in a mouse?" is not easy, she said. Mice are social creatures, she said, so isolation is stressful. She changes their cages every day and gives them "novel objects that they don't like, which happen to be marbles." She also exposes them to fox urine, "which freaks the mice out."

Epperson is looking for pregnant and menopausal women who have experienced childhood trauma for her studies. For information, go to www.med.upenn.edu/womenswellness/#

- Stacey Burling

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