Epigenetic mechanisms in sexual differentiation of the brain and behaviour

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 Feb 19;371(1688):20150114. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0114. Epub 2016 Feb 1.


Circumstantial evidence alone argues that the establishment and maintenance of sex differences in the brain depend on epigenetic modifications of chromatin structure. More direct evidence has recently been obtained from two types of studies: those manipulating a particular epigenetic mechanism, and those examining the genome-wide distribution of specific epigenetic marks. The manipulation of histone acetylation or DNA methylation disrupts the development of several neural sex differences in rodents. Taken together, however, the evidence suggests there is unlikely to be a simple formula for masculine or feminine development of the brain and behaviour; instead, underlying epigenetic mechanisms may vary by brain region or even by dependent variable within a region. Whole-genome studies related to sex differences in the brain have only very recently been reported, but suggest that males and females may use different combinations of epigenetic modifications to control gene expression, even in cases where gene expression does not differ between the sexes. Finally, recent findings are discussed that are likely to direct future studies on the role of epigenetic mechanisms in sexual differentiation of the brain and behaviour.

Keywords: DNA methylation; bed nucleus of the stria terminalis; histone; medial preoptic area; sex difference.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal