Webinar Review: His and Hers: Sex Differences in the Brain with Catherine Woolley

Our trainees review webinars in their given fields and share abstracts to help colleagues outside their discipline make an informed choice about watching them. As our program bridges diverse disciplines, these abstracts are beneficial for our own group in helping one another gain key knowledge in each other’s fields. We are happy to share these here for anyone else who may find them helpful.

His and Hers: Sex Differences in the Brain with Catherine Woolley

Interview conducted by the Dana Foundation


Soundcloud: Dana Foundation Podcast

Watch on the Dana Foundation website >>

Jennifer WaltersSummary and Analysis by Jennifer Walters:

This interview was conducted with Dr. Catherine Woolley, a renowned neuroscientist who studies the latent sex differences in the brain – specifically within the hippocampus. Fascinatingly, as Woolley discusses in the beginning, she originally never even wanted to study this aspect of neuroscience in the first place. In fact, she actively avoided acknowledging sex differences.

It was not until her realization that the bulk of the data and studies published her field were entirely male-based, where she was essentially forced to compare the findings of her own female-based studies to these previously performed studies on males, that she found that there were fundamental differences in neurological mechanisms based in both cells and animals. However, the data to compare was scarce, so she resolved to conduct her experiments and pursue these important questions by investigating both sexes.

Her career fundamentally revolves around pushing against the popularized brain theory that the male and female brain are the same – they are simply just doused in different types of hormones. She makes the point that when questioning her colleagues whether she should pursue studying these underlying sex differences in the brain, one said that they thought it would be fine to include both sexes in the study, but they actually just want to know how the brain normally works – and then later, they can worry about “variations of normal.” The implication was that the attempt to understand the male and female brain is a variation of normalcy.

As she clearly states in the interview, it is now established that the brain works normally differently in one sex from the way the brain works normally in another sex. Her explanations emphasize the importance of looking at the brains of both sexes, to parse out when results are applicable to both sexes, or when they are only to one and not the other.

Woolley draws excellent analogies throughout her interview and paints an elaborate picture as to the significance of understanding categorical and molecular differences in the male and female brain by investigating models both in vitro and in vivo.

Her work is absolutely fascinating (I’ve read many of her papers myself) and after listening to this interview, it has only made me respect her work that much more. She overcame her reluctance to look at what was staring right back at her in the field, and now she is taking it head on. I find this type of mentality in science not only admirable, but integral to making real scientific progress.

I recommend this interview to anyone interested in sex differences, neuroscience, or anyone interested in what it’s like to challenge your own beliefs and learn from that experience in science.