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Subcutaneous fat emerges as a protector of females’ brains

Females’ propensity to deposit more fat in places like their hips, buttocks and the backs of their arms, so-called subcutaneous fat, is protective against brain inflammation, which can result in problems like dementia and stroke, at least until menopause, scientists report.

Males of essentially any age have a greater propensity to deposit fat around the major organs in their abdominal cavity, called visceral adiposity, which is known to be far more inflammatory. And, before females reach menopause, males are considered at much higher risk for inflammation-related problems from heart attack to stroke.

“When people think about protection in women, their first thought is estrogen,” says Alexis M. Stranahan, PhD, neuroscientist in the Department of Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. “But we need to get beyond the kind of simplistic idea that every sex difference involves hormone differences and hormone exposure. We need to really think more deeply about the underlying mechanisms for sex differences so that we can treat them and acknowledge the role that sex plays in different clinical outcomes.”

Diet and genetics are other likely factors that explain the differences broadly assigned to estrogen, says Stranahan, corresponding author of a study in the American Diabetes Association journal Diabetes.

She acknowledges that the findings are potentially heretical and revolutionary and certainly surprising even to her. “We did these experiments to try and nail down, first of all, what happens first, the hormone perturbation, the inflammation or the brain changes.”

To learn more about how the brain becomes inflamed, they looked at increases in the amount and location of fat tissue as well as levels of sex hormones and brain inflammation in male and female mice at different time intervals as they grew fatter on a high-fat diet.

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