Sex is an essential biological variable that significantly impacts multiple aspects of neural functioning in both the healthy and diseased brain. Sex differences in brain structure and function are organized early in development during the critical period of sexual differentiation. While decades of research establish gonadal hormones as the primary modulators of this process, new research has revealed a critical, and perhaps underappreciated, role of the neuroimmune system in sex-specific brain development. The immune and endocrine systems are tightly intertwined and share processes and effector molecules that influence the nervous system. Thus, a natural question is whether endocrine-immune crosstalk contributes to sexual differentiation of the brain. In this mini-review, we first provide a conceptual framework by classifying the major categories of neural sex differences and review the concept of sexual differentiation of the brain, a process occurring early in development and largely controlled by steroid hormones. Next, we describe developmental sex differences in the neuroimmune system, which may represent targets or mediators of the sexual differentiation process. We then discuss the overwhelming evidence in support of crosstalk between the neuroendocrine and immune systems and highlight recent examples that shape sex differences in the brain. Finally, we review how early life events can perturb sex-specific neurodevelopment via aberrant immune activation.
Keywords: cytokines; hormone; microglia; neurodevelopment; neuroimmune; sex differences.
© Endocrine Society 2020.