Bangasser DA, Valentino RJ.
Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2012 Apr 10. [Epub ahead of print]
Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from stress-related psychiatric disorders, like unipolar depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Although the underlying neural mechanisms are not well characterized, the pivotal role of stress in the onset and severity of these diseases has led to the idea that sex differences in stress responses account for this sex bias. Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) orchestrates stress responses by acting both as a neurohormone to initiate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and as a neuromodulator in the brain. One target of CRF modulation is the locus coeruleus (LC)-norepinephrine system, which coordinates arousal components of the stress response. Hypersecretion of CRF and dysregulation of targets downstream from CRF, such as the HPA axis and LC-norepinephrine system, are characteristic features of many stress-related psychiatric diseases, suggesting a causal role for CRF and its targets in the development of these disorders. This review will describe sex differences in CRF and the LC-norepinephrine system that can increase stress sensitivity in females, making them vulnerable to stress-related disorders. Evidence for gonadal hormone regulation of hypothalamic CRF is discussed as an effect that can lead to increased HPA axis activity in females. Sex differences in the structure of LC neurons that create the potential for hyperarousal in response to emotional stimuli are described. Finally, sex differences at the molecular level of the CRF(1) receptor that make the LC-norepinephrine system more reactive in females are reviewed. The implications of these sex differences for the treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders also will be discussed.