How the immune system influences sexual habits

Not only society, culture and status, but now it apprears that sexual behaviour may be influenced also by immune cells in the brain. At least that's what happens in mice, as was recently discovered by a team of neuroscientists coordinated by Kathryn Lenz at The Ohio State University. In particular, the researchers focused on the role of a specific group of immune cells, mast cells, to understand if they were involved in modelling of sexual habits. To do this, Lenz and colleagues silenced these cells in foetal male rats and then followed their development throughout life, comparing them to a control group of rats whose mast cells had not been silenced. It emerged, as they explain in the Journal of Neuroscience, that when paired with females receptive to mating, the male rats in the first group were much less interest in mating, and sometimes they behaved as females. Vice versa, foetal female rats stimulated with chemicals that activate mast cells tended to assume "masculine" behaviour as adults. The scientists explain that this phenomenon could be linked to the fact that the masculinizing hormone estradiol activate mast cells in the brain. These mast cells may then "guide" in some way the animal’s sexual development. Further studies are needed to better understand the reasons for the phenomenon and, above all, to establish whether the same dynamics also apply to humans.    


Suggested readings

  • Kathryn M. Lenz, Lindsay A. Pickett, Christopher L. Wright, Katherine T. Davis, Aarohi Joshi and Margaret M. McCarthy Mast Cells in the Developing Brain Determine Adult Sexual Behavior, Journal of Neuroscience 12 September 2018, 38 (37) 8044-8059; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1176-18.2018
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