Contributions of sex to cerebrovascular function and pathology

Brain Res. 2019 May 1:1710:43-60. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2018.12.030. Epub 2018 Dec 20.


Sex differences exist in how cerebral blood vessels function under both physiological and pathological conditions, contributing to observed sex differences in risk and outcomes of cerebrovascular diseases (CBVDs), such as vascular contributions to cognitive impairment and dementia (VCID) and stroke. Throughout most of the lifespan, women are protected from CBVDs; however, risk increases following menopause, suggesting sex hormones may play a significant role in this protection. The cerebrovasculature is a target for sex hormones, including estrogens, progestins, and androgens, where they can influence numerous vascular functions and pathologies. While there is a plethora of information on estrogen, the effects of progestins and androgens on the cerebrovasculature are less well-defined. Estrogen decreases cerebral tone and increases cerebral blood flow, while androgens increase tone. Both estrogens and androgens enhance angiogenesis/cerebrovascular remodeling. While both estrogens and androgens attenuate cerebrovascular inflammation, pro-inflammatory effects of androgens under physiological conditions have also been demonstrated. Sex hormones exert additional neuroprotective effects by attenuating oxidative stress and maintaining integrity and function of the blood brain barrier. Most animal studies utilize young, healthy, gonadectomized animals, which do not mimic the clinical conditions of aging individuals likely to get CBVDs. This is also concerning, as sex hormones appear to mediate cerebrovascular function differently based on age and disease state (e.g. metabolic syndrome). Through this review, we hope to inspire others to consider sex as a key biological variable in cerebrovascular research, as greater understanding of sex differences in cerebrovascular function will assist in developing personalized approaches to prevent and treat CBVDs.

Keywords: Cerebrovascular disease; Dementia; Sex differences; Sex hormones; Stroke; Vascular.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Androgens / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / metabolism*
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / pathology*
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / prevention & control
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / physiopathology
  • Dementia, Vascular / physiopathology
  • Estrogens / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sex Factors
  • Stroke / physiopathology


  • Androgens
  • Estrogens