A new Rutgers study shows how the brains of female animals are altered by sexual aggression and violence and suggests more studies are needed to determine if human brains go through similar changes. The Rutgers study published yesterday in Scientific Reports confirms and explains specific ways the brains of female rodents are altered by sexual aggression.
The team headed by Tracey Shors, professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience in the school of arts and sciences, discovered that when paired with sexually experienced males, prepubescent female rodents developed elevated levels of stress hormones, could not learn as well and were less nurturing to their offspring.”This study is important because we need to understand how sexual aggression affects all species,” said Shors. “We also need to know the consequences of this behavior in order for us to determine what we can do to help women learn to recover from sexual aggression and violence.”
According to the World Health Association, about thirty percent of women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual assault in their lifetime. More troubling, adolescent girls are much more likely than the general public to be victims of rape, attempted rape or assault. While some cultures are known to routinely mistreat women, recent surveys indicate that as many as one in five college women experience sexual violence while on campus.According to Shor, previous studies show women who experience sexual violence are at higher risk for clinical depression, PTSD and a host of other mood disorders. Shor cited a lack of an established laboratory animal models designed for studying the effects of sexual aggression against females and how it alters brain function.
To that end, Shors and her colleagues developed the Sexual Conspecific Aggressive Response (SCAR) model to begin measuring how stress associated with sexual aggression affected female rodents. According to Shors, the lack of research on female animals is the reason why the National Institutes of Health recently required both male and female animals be used in studies in order for projects to receive federal funding.”Laboratory models used to measure stress in animals have traditionally looked at how stress affects males and have not reflected the kind of stress that young women experience,” she said. Bringing gender balance to research, Shors said, is why the National Institutes of Health is now requiring both male and female animals be included in research studies before projects qualify for federal funding.
In the Rutger study female rats generated fewer new brain cells as they matured along with a decline in minimal maternal behavior when compared with counterparts raised in a normalized laboratory environment.The research doesn’t necessarily prove that humans subjected to sexual aggression are similarly affected, but other studies have shown that sexual aggression and violence is one of the most likely causes of PTSD in women. Such studies also show decreased learning abilities and memory in women subjected to sexual aggression and violence. The children of women who experience sexual aggression and violence are also at greater risk for suffering traumatic experiences.”We know very little about the brain mechanisms that account for the increase in depression and mood disorders among women who experience sexual trauma and aggression,” Shors said. “But with new approaches and attention to this issue, we can find out how the female brain responds to aggression and how to help women learn to recover from sexual violence.”
A National Violence Against Women Survey found that rape is a crime committed primarily against youth. Of the women who reported being raped sometime in their lives, 21.6% were younger than age 12, 32.4% were ages 12 to 17, 29% were ages 18 to 24, and 16.6% were over 25 years old. Thus, 54% of women victims were under age 18 at the time of the first rape and 83% were under the age of 25.21 t=_blank]found that rape is a crime committed primarily against youth. Of the women who reported being raped sometime in their lives, 21.6% were younger than age12, 32.4% were ages 12 to 17, 29% were ages 18 to 24, and 16.6% were over 25 years old. Thus, 54% of women victims were under age 18 at the time of the first rape and 83% were under the age of 25.21.