An Advocate for the Female Brain
Rebecca Shansky studies both female and male rodents to ensure that scientists have a complete and unbiased picture of the brain.
Neuroscientists have historically defaulted to male subjects for research. This was true even for those studying disorders more common in women such as post-traumatic stress disorder1 and depression.2 Limited knowledge about the female brain motivated Rebecca Shansky, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University, to study both sexes in rat and mouse models to explore how stress and fear change the brain structure and function.
By excluding female subjects, we rule out half of what's possible. That's going to slow down science.
—Rebecca Shansky, Northeastern University
Why should neuroscientists consider both sexes when studying the brain?
We miss a lot when we don’t study female models. Female brains are organized differently. They have different mechanisms for executing fundamental biological processes. If neuroscientists aim to provide knowledge that will be translated into human health, we need to understand what's possible. And by excluding female subjects, we rule out half of what's possible. That's going to slow down science.
What are the challenges in studying both sexes?
Some of our behavior tests are not going to work as well in female animals, and we may need to make some adjustments or think about better investigational metrics. Also, some people still have biases, and that's a challenge for everybody. There is also a trend in academic publishing that favors studies with sophisticated techniques only in male models over more careful but less flashy work using both sexes. This practice disincentivizes researchers to take sex as a biological variable (SABV) work seriously. That needs to change so that the goals of NIH’s SABV policy and the goals of scientists better align.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Correction notice (July 25): The photo caption in this article has been updated to specify that Rebecca Shansky is a group leader at Northeastern University.