Does sexual aggression alter the female brain?

February 19, 2016 by Robin Lally
A new animal model will help scientists find out how the female brain responds to sexual aggression. 

Rutgers scientists have taken a step toward understanding how sexual aggression alters the female brain.

In a recent study in Scientific Reports, lead author Tracey Shors, professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences, discovered that prepubescent female rodents paired with sexually experienced males had elevated levels of stress hormones, could not learn as well, and expressed reduced maternal behaviors needed to care for offspring.
"This study is important because we need to understand how sexual aggression affects all species," said Shors. "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."

Thirty percent of women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual assault in their lifetime and adolescent girls are much more likely than the general public to be victims of rape, attempted rape or assault, according to the World Health Organization. Recent surveys indicate that as many as one in five college students experience during their university years.

Women who experience sexual violence are more likely to suffer with depression, PTSD and other . Still, despite the undeniable connection between 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, Shors said.

"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 said.

Bringing gender balance to research, Shors said, 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.

In this new Rutgers study, Shors and her colleagues developed the Sexual Conspecific Aggressive Response (SCAR) model to determine how stress associated with sexual aggression affected female rodents.

Even though it is normal for female rats to care for their offspring, as well as the offspring of other rodents, Shors said the females in this study that were exposed to the adult male throughout puberty 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.

While scientists don't know if this type of sexual aggression would have the same effects in humans, studies have shown that and violence is one of the most likely causes of PTSD in women, a condition which is associated with decreased brain functions related to learning and memory. The children of women who experience sexual violence are also at greater risk for suffering traumatic experiences themselves as they grow up.

"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 said. "But with new approaches and attention to this issue, we can find out how the female responds to aggression and how to help women learn to recover from sexual violence."

Explore further: New research explores complex relationship between sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual arousal

More information: Tracey J. Shors et al. Sexual Conspecific Aggressive Response (SCAR): A Model of Sexual Trauma that Disrupts Maternal Learning and Plasticity in the Female Brain, Scientific Reports (2016). DOI: 10.1038/srep18960

Related Stories

New research explores complex relationship between sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual arousal

December 2, 2015
New research from of the Sexuality and Gender Laboratory at Queen's University shows that heterosexual women have more diverse patterns of sexual response than previously reported.

Community-level violence linked to teens' risky sexual behavior

January 26, 2016
Teens' experiences with violence—either through fear of violence, observing violent events, or being victims of violence themselves—are associated with how likely they are to have sex and use condoms, new research from ...

Study examines the effects of childhood trauma on later sexual well-being

October 19, 2015
Among 96 former Swiss indentured child laborers, 22 individuals showed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and 53 reported having experienced childhood trauma. Men reported a significantly higher prevalence of ...

Many women experience 'post-sex blues'

October 5, 2015
Very few studies on female sexual dysfunction have looked at postcoital dysphoria (PCD), or "post-sex blues," which is characterized by tearfulness, a sense of melancholy or depression, anxiety, agitation, or aggression following ...

Origins of 'rage' identified in brain in male animal model

February 11, 2016
Violent, unprovoked outbursts in male mice have been linked to changes in a brain structure tied to the control of anxiety and fear, according to a report by researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center to be published in ...

Sexual assault circumstances differ for military men, women

May 1, 2015
As the military struggles to combat sexual assault, surveys are uncovering stark differences between the attacks against active-duty female service members and those against active-duty men. The differences are forcing defense ...

Recommended for you

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences?

July 26, 2017
No one really knows what happens when we die, but many people have stories to tell about what they experienced while being close to death. People who have had a near-death-experience usually report very rich and detailed ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.