A recent NPR article by Jon Hamilton highlights the fact that, in terms of concussion, women are fast closing the gender gap.
Previously, one of the issues in understanding the gendered response to head injuries has been the lack of research into women’s concussion.
“We classically have always known the male response to brain injury,” says Mark Burns, at Georgetown University. But there have been remarkably few studies of females. The bias runs throughout the scientific literature, even in studies of mice.
“Male mice have been used historically in research and not really been compared to female mice,” he says.
That’s changing now. The National Institutes of Health recently began to require scientists to include female animals.
Burns’ lab has begun using both sexes in research on head injuries. And they’re finding some differences. This summer, Burns published a study in the journal Glia that looked at mice with severe brain injuries. He says the brains of male mice showed a massive immune response within a day, but the female response was much slower — up to seven days.
Dr Charles Bernick of the Cleveland Clinic – Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas runs a long-term study looking at concussion in approximately 700 male and 60 female mixed martial arts fighters. The study focuses on identifying changes in the brains of these fighters. Assessing these fighters offers his team a way to compare how each gender reacts to concussion and is of benefit in a sport where the goal is to knock someone out.
Dr Bernick believes the study’s evidence suggests there is a real difference in the ways men and women react to head injuries.
“Women may be more likely to suffer concussion. Their symptoms may linger longer,” he says. “The question is: Is that because women are just more likely to report injuries, or is there a biological higher vulnerability.“
Researchers have suggested some reasons women might be more vulnerable. They tend to have weaker neck muscles. So a head impact might shake the brain more violently. And hormonal differences might affect the brain’s response to an impact or injury.
Dr Bernick is hoping that the results of the study may shed light on the future prediction of neurodegenerative disease.