Sex Differences in the Brain: What Are They, What Aren’t They, and When Do They Matter?


Catherine Woolley, a neurobiology professor at Northwestern University, has studied gonadal steroid modulation of synaptic structure and function for more than 25 years. For most of that time, her work focused on the hippocampus of females and she intentionally avoided the issue of sex differences. But when her team’s experiments began to yield unexpected results that conflicted with the published literature, she suspected that they might have stumbled onto previously unknown sex differences. Like this accidental discovery of sex differences, little about Woolley’s career has gone according to a plan. She shares some stories to illustrate the unpredictable nature of a career in science. Have unexpected results changed the direction of your work? Share your experience in the discussion below. 


Catherine Woolley, PhD

Catherine Woolley, PhD

Catherine Woolley is the William Deering Professor of the department of neurobiology at the Northwestern University College of Arts & Sciences. Her research focuses on steroid regulation of synaptic structure and function and the consequences of steroid-driven synaptic modulation for behavior. Two ideas driving her work in the lab are that estrogens are produced not only in periphery as hormones but also directly within the brain as neurosteroids that rapidly modulate synaptic function and behavior, and that some mechanisms of synaptic modulation in non-reproductive parts of the brain differ between the sexes, which is important for understanding how experience or interventions, such as drugs, affect males and females differently.


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