Men and women who experience concussions often have similar experiences in many ways. The headaches, nausea, and confusion are almost universal among those who experience a traumatic brain injury. But, the effects of TBI in men and women can also be very different.
Past research has shown women are significantly more likely to develop neuropsychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder after a brain injury, but no one has been able to explain why.
Now, researchers from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences believe they may have found the answer.
According to the researchers, the unique brain wiring of women puts them at risk for a potentially disrupted pathway in the brain after TBI that could contribute to further psychiatric issues.
The findings are set to be presented at the upcoming Endocrine Society’s annual meeting by lead author Ashley Russell, a PhD candidate in neuroscience, and USU research assistant Elizabeth Shupe.
The team set out to explain why blast brain injuries have documented unique effects based on sex, specifically in the endocrine system. As they explain, the relationship between the endocrine system and the nervous system effect countless aspects of mental and physical health.
To explore the unique effects, the researchers conducted and published several studies regarding the hormonal, behavioral, and anatomical response to brain injuries. This led them to zero in on what is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a metric to assess the integrity of the endocrine system.
Russell and colleagues found that concussions can disrupt this system, leading to changes in stress hormones associated with an increase in feelings and behaviors related to anxiety in a sex-dependent manner. While they have been able to pinpoint the system and identify that it is uniquely affected in women, they say there is still more research needed to understand the system’s response after a brain injury. However, they hope that uncovering the underlying mechanisms behind this response could potentially lead to better treatments for psychiatric symptoms of TBI.
“Currently, there are no therapeutic measures to mitigate the effects of subsequent neuropsychiatric disorders after a TBI. However, these findings allow us to see how a mild TBI injury can disrupt the neuroendocrine system, which hopefully will lead to better treatment modalities and better support for our warfighters,” Russell said.
This study specifically focused on blast-related TBIs like those experienced by members of the military, but Russell says the findings could likely also translate over to other forms of TBI.