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“If you’re not studying women at all, you’re biased”

Rehabilitation Science Graduate Students’ Union hosts panel discussion on brain health in women
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DThe panel hosted experts in psychology, reproductive health, and brain health. INA DONG/THE VARSITY
DThe panel hosted experts in psychology, reproductive health, and brain health. INA DONG/THE VARSITY

The Rehabilitation Science Graduate Students’ Union hosted its inaugural Speaker Series event to discuss women and brain health on March 25. The panel was held at the Rehabilitation Sciences Building.

Kyla Alsbury, PhD student in Rehabilitation Science, explained that the Speaker Series is a reincarnation of what was previously a monthly awareness project.

Mary Boulos, master’s student in Rehabilitation Science, hopes that these events will bridge the gap between research and the community.

“We’re doing research on these different diseases and disorders, but those findings aren’t being shared with the people who are most affected,” said Boulos. 

The goal of the event was to share research and engage with members of the community who are affected and ultimately better their health.

The speakers included Professor Gillian Einstein from the Department of Psychology and adjunct scientist at Women’s College Hospital, who discussed the relationship between sex, gender, and women’s brain health; Reema Shafi, a PhD candidate at the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute, who explained the vulnerability of women’s brain after concussions; and Melissa Biscardi, who recently completed her master’s degree and spoke about the endocrine reproductive health outcomes of women after brain injury.

Mental rotation differences between the sexes

Einstein explained that women’s brain health is important, simply put, because “thinking about… organisms [with XX chromosomes] brings new ideas.” Taking sex into account, Einstein said, “ensures that we can develop effective and safe treatments for  [people with XX chromosomes].”

There are differences in biology, such as phenotypic expression, gene expression and epigenetic signatures, and life experience, when comparing to organisms who possess XY chromosomes to those with XX.

Members of Einstein’s lab created an experiment to determine whether sex plays a role in mental rotation tasks and when transcognition is formed.

Different groups of people were asked to complete a Vandenberg and Kuse mental rotation task. People with XX chromosomes in the follicular and luteal stage of their menstrual cycle, female-to-male transgender people on testosterone hormone therapy, and people with XY chromosomes were asked to complete the task, which shows a 3D representation of an object. The subjects then had to match that impression to another one of the same object from a different angle. 

It was found that people with XX chromosomes at low estrogen states did as well as people with XY chromosomes and people with XX chromosomes on hormone therapy. Therefore, a sex-based difference in performance is seen in the luteal phase. They also discovered that the hormone therapy that female-to-male transgender subjects receive allows them to test as cisgender males.

Concussions and menopause

Biscardi discussed the state of menopause in women who suffered a traumatic brain injury.

She explained that “most women experience new onset of changes in menstruation despite being at least one year post-injury.”

Furthermore, in the tested sample, Biscardi found that menopause symptoms were more intense when compared to the general population.

As the symptoms of menopause and post-concussion are similar, Biscardi noted that investigation is needed to determine which symptoms are due to menopause and which are due to concussive effects.

Shafi explained that there is evidence of females experiencing vulnerability after a concussion due to a combination of factors such as structural disadvantages, which can affect cognitive processing after a concussion.

Following the speakers, there was a short panel discussion with questions from the audience.

Einstein explained that in terms of research funding, she finds a lack of understanding, saying that “if you’re only doing research in females, they really don’t know why you’re doing that.”

“Fifty per cent of the population is women,” said Shafi. “So if you’re not studying women at all, you’re biased [against] women. You have to have a reason to not study sex and gender.”