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Allergic Reactions Play Role in Sexual Behavior Development in Unborn Males and Females, UMSOM Research Shows

March 28, 2019 | Joanne Morrison

Margaret McCarthy, PhD

Dr. Margaret McCarthy’s Research Sheds Light on Brain Development Between Males and Females

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and colleagues at Ohio State University have discovered that allergic reactions trigger changes in brain behavior development in unborn males and females. This latest brain development discovery will ultimately help researchers better understand how neurological conditions can differ between men and women.

It is the first study to assess the response of a type of immune cell called a mast cell, linked to allergic responses, to determine if these cells play a role in sexual behavior development.

Dr. Katherine Lenz“Many mental health and neurological disorders show a sex bias in prevalence, this latest research shows that inflammatory events, like allergic reactions, early in life may influence males and females differently due to underlying sex differences in the neuro immune system,” said Margaret McCarthy, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology and Chair of the Department of Pharmacology, whose lab conducted the research that was initiated by Dr. Katherine Lenz, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Ohio State University.

These findings, which were published in Scientific Reports, illustrate that immune cells are involved in the process of brain sexual differentiation, and that prenatal allergic inflammation can impact this crucial process in both sexes. This finding is another discovery that will ultimately help researchers understand behavioral development differences between males and females.

How Allergic Reactions Impact Sexual Behavior

Researchers tested the sexual differentiation in rats that were exposed to an allergic reaction while still in utero. They induced an allergic reaction to egg whites in pregnant rats, and results of the study showed the allergic reaction impacted behavior changes in the offspring. Male rats showed less male sexual behavior as adults and adult females behaved more like male rates.

The research tracked mast cells, which are known for their role in allergic responses. Researchers sought to determine if exposure to an allergic response of the pregnant female in utero would alter the sexual differentiation of the offspring and result in sociosexual behavior in later life.

“This research shows that early life allergic events may contribute to natural variations in both male and female sexual behavior, potentially via underlying effects on brain-resident mast cells,” said Dr. McCarthy.

Sexual differentiation takes place in the early life process and it is directed by sex chromosomes, hormones and early life experiences. What this research showed is that immune cells residing in the brain such as microglia and mast cells, are more numerous in the male than female rat brains, and these cells play a critical role in brain development.

“This research is an important discovery in the science behind brain development in males and females as we address brain disorders early in life. It builds upon the research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, that uncovers how male and female brains differ, which will ultimately help in treating a wide range of serious brain disorders,” said UMSOM Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, who is also the Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, University of Maryland, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and The Ohio State University Startup Funds to KML.

About the University of Maryland School of Medicine

Now in its third century, the University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 as the first public medical school in the United States. It continues today as one of the fastest growing, top-tier biomedical research enterprises in the world -- with 43 academic departments, centers, institutes, and programs; and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians, scientists, and allied health professionals, including members of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and a distinguished recipient of the Albert E. Lasker Award in Medical Research.  With an operating budget of more than $1 billion, the School of Medicine works closely in partnership with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide research-intensive, academic and clinically based care for more than 1.2 million patients each year. The School has over 2,500 students, residents, and fellows, and more than $530 million in extramural funding, with most of its academic departments highly ranked among all medical schools in the nation in research funding. As one of the seven professional schools that make up the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the School of Medicine has a total workforce of nearly 7,000 individuals. The combined School and Medical System (“University of Maryland Medicine”) has an annual budget of nearly $6 billion and an economic impact more than $15 billion on the state and local community. The School of Medicine faculty, which ranks as the 8th highest among public medical schools in research productivity, is an innovator in translational medicine, with 600 active patents and 24 start-up companies. The School works locally, nationally, and globally, with research and treatment facilities in 36 countries around the world. Visit medschool.umaryland.edu

Contact

Joanne Morrison
Director of Marketing and Public Relations
University of Maryland School of Medicine
jmorrison@som.umaryland.edu
Office: (410) 706-2884
Mobile: (202) 841-3369

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