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During prenatal development, the brains of most animals, including humans, develop specifically male or female characteristics. In most species, some portions of male and female brains are a different size, and often have a different number of neurons and synapses. However, scientists have known little about how this differentiation occurs. Now, a new study by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM) has illuminated details about this process.
Margaret McCarthy, PhD, professor and chairman of the Department of Pharmacology, studied brain development in newborn rats. She found that giving estradiol, a testosterone derivative, triggers a mechanism by which certain genes in the brain are “unsilenced,” allowing them to initiate the process of masculinization. This process involves a group of enzymes known as DNA methyltransferases, or Dnmts, which modify DNA to repress gene expression.
The paper was published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.