Schoolwork, peer pressure, expectations—there are many things that weigh heavy on the mind of a teenager. While most of these stressors are normal and a healthy part of life, some teenagers unfortunately experience more extreme forms of stress that can have long-lasting effects on the brain. The science community has made some progress in understanding the structural and biological changes that high levels of stress can have on the teenage brain, but AAAS Member Gladys Shaw—a doctoral student at the Virginia Commonwealth University—wants to take this research further by exploring how these changes may differ between the brains of young males and females.
Shaw presented her research related to adolescent brains at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting, but this appearance at the annual event wasn’t her first rodeo. She attended her first AAAS Annual Meeting in 2017, presenting a poster of her master’s thesis on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. “The amount of positive and constructive feedback from all the members who saw my poster and came up and asked me questions just blew my mind,” she says. “I had not been exposed to that amount of help from different scientists with different backgrounds and knowledge bases.”
At this year’s AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, she presented research on the development of the teenage brain. In doing so, she hoped to raise awareness on two key issues: the importance of accounting for differences between the sexes in research studies, and also the importance of studying development of the brain during adolescence, when the organ is still sensitive to long-term alterations.
“Stress-related disorders, like depression and anxiety, have a different prevalence between males and females, with females showing higher rates of anxiety and depression than males. And this actually starts right around puberty, when the sex hormones increase in the brain,” explains Shaw. A major problem, she notes, is that most research in the past has been conducted in males, meaning the effects of extreme stress on females remains much less understood.
To address these gaps in research, Shaw is comparing stress-induced changes in the brains of male and female rodents. One type of stress she is exploring is psychosocial stress, which includes experiences such as neglect or bullying. The second type is a more primitive form of stress related to survival and predation, whereby an animal is exposed to aspects of a predator that induce the urge to fight for its life or flee to safety (this is commonly called the “fight or flight” response). Specifically, Shaw is exploring how these forms of stress change the amount of energy that neurons use to communicate with each other, which is called synaptic metabolism.
“The changes in [synaptic] metabolism between males and females is really astounding,” she says, especially with predation stress.
During the AAAS Annual Meeting, Shaw talked about these most recent sex-specific findings; for example, she has discovered that females have altered synaptic metabolism for months following their last experience with predation stress and well into the adult period of life. These prolonged changes could explain the female prevalence of stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders.
She hopes attendees left her presentation with some key takeaways. “I hope that from the talk, people realize that studying sex differences is extremely important. And the results that you get in males are not always going to be applicable to the results that you get in females, and vice versa. Also, I hope that the importance of studying development at the adolescent time point is made and important to other people from hearing my talk.”
Shaw may continue her career in academia after her doctorate, but she is also considering science communication as a potential career option. “I’m really interested in making science more palatable to other non-scientists. Finding a way to get the general public interested in [research] and making it possible for them to understand the science [is important],” she says.