Stereotypes About 'Messy' Female Brains Continue to Influence Biomedical Research

Illustration for article titled Stereotypes About 'Messy' Female Brains Continue to Influence Biomedical Research
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A neuroscientist at Northeastern University is calling for medical testing not just to include female subjects, but to design experiments that better account for both biological sexes.

In an article published in Science, Dr. Rebecca Shanksy argues that experiments using male subjects as a default pose a public health problem. She explained to The New York Times that though the National Institutes of Health mandates that female subjects be included in all preclinical research, the problem is much deeper than that. In neuroscience studies, male subjects outnumber female subjects six to one, and are still tested separately with the male results usually being seen as standard:

“Dr. Shansky offered an example of how females were expected to behave in tasks designed to model post-traumatic stress in male rodents. Instead of freezing as males did, the females darted around during experimental tests. Without recognizing this behavior as different, rather than wrong, one might say females failed the task.”


The problem stems from generations of gendered ideas about male and female brains and stereotypes that categorize male brains as orderly and rational while female brains are messy, emotional, and hormonal. In recent years, these ideas have been challenged, but those challenges don’t mean much has changed, according to the Times:

“In recent years, analyses of hundreds of neuroscience studies offered clear evidence disproving the idea that males are less hormonal. In some cases, male rodents living in groups were messier because their testosterone (which essentially works on the brain like estrogen) fluctuates, depending on dominance hierarchies in groups.”

But even if those old stereotypes held true, that doesn’t mean that tests should be designed to discount an entire group, according to neurobiologist Daniella Pollak:

“Even if scientists had shown that females were more complex subjects, “‘it would not suffice as an excuse,’” said Dr. Pollak. “‘Scientists are not meant to give up on a problem just because it starts becoming complicated.’”


These mindsets have real-world repercussions. The article sites a 2013 Food and Drug Administration advisory that recommended women take a half dose of the sleep aid Ambien based on women reporting more side effects. However, it was later discovered that body weight was causing inaccurate dosing, resulting in overdoses for men and underdoses for women.

Correcting the problem, according to Shansky, means overhauling the siloed ways research has traditionally been conducted:

“Dr. Shansky [says] research can be improved by studying the sexes in parallel or in the same cohort, instead of experimenting on one sex after the other and making the first set of results the standard.”


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I’m currently pursuing my PhD in Neurobiology and have made this a huge part of my career since I’m interested in pursuing a career in science policy just as much as doing bench research. I see this attitude all the time in my department and previous labs I’ve worked in at other institutions. The default is always “white male” no matter what you’re looking at, and this attitude extends to things beyond behavior as well. Science in general is incredibly biased toward studying white men and males in general, and ultimately the researchers have to go back and redo their research since they’re ignoring whole swaths of our population even at the basic science level (ie: not clinical trials).

I really believe that if basic science doesn’t adapt concepts of diversity and inclusion from jump, you’re going to see this problem and negative effects downstream for decades and generations. There’s more traction concerning gender and/or biological sex since the minority of women that are in charge of their own laboratory/research are white women, so race is still falling by the wayside in a huge way. However, the work’s gotta be done. Also, I think it’s stupid that people view research this way since there’s so much money to be made. If you see a completely different effect in female rats or different efficacy of a common drug in non-white populations, you’re literally creating an entirely new research field rather than thinking “oh, these subjects fail to meet the standard set by males and/or white men.” You can get whole research grants based on this, and it’s low hanging fruit since it’s basically redoing research that’s already been done or creating brand new hypotheses entirely.

I don’t know if I’ll ever make a big impact, but I hope I can push for change. I know that scientists are snobs that only trust people with PhDs that are actively conducting research in some way. If there’s a way for me to do bench research while doing science policy, then great. However, I want to be part of this wave of change and push for diversity and inclusion so much since it’s lagging so far behind in academic research, which fuels so much industrial and clinical research we see today. Academic research is stuck in the 70s in terms of gender parity and racial inclusion, and it needs to change so much faster than it is.

(Also, can I get dragged out of the grays? I’ve been commenting on this site for like, 10 years.)