BackgroundCerebral ischemic stroke is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality. Sex differences exist following stroke in terms of incidence, symptoms, outcomes and response to some treatments. Importantly, molecular mechanisms of injury, activated following ischemia may differ between the sexes and if so may account, at least in part, for sex differences seen in treatment response. Here we aimed to determine, using single-sex organotypic hippocampal slice cultures, whether the effectiveness of a potential treatment option, i.e. sex steroids, exhibited any sexual dimorphism and whether sex affected the mechanisms of apoptosis activated following ischemia.ResultsFollowing exposure to ischemia, male-derived tissue exhibited higher levels of cell death than female-derived tissue. Various sex steroid hormones, i.e. progesterone, allopregnanolone, and estradiol, were protective in terms of reducing the amount of cell death in male- and female-derived tissue whereas medoxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) was only protective in female-derived tissue. The protective effect of progesterone was abolished in the presence of finasteride, a 5α-reductase inhibitor, suggesting it was largely mediated via its conversion to allopregnanolone. To test the hypothesis that sex differences exist in the activation of specific elements of the apoptotic pathway activated following ischemia we administered Q-VD-OPH, a caspase inhibitor, or PJ34, an inhibitor of poly (ADP ribose) polymerase (PARP). Caspase inhibition was only effective, in terms of reducing cell death, in female-derived tissue, whereas PARP inhibition was only protective in male-derived tissue. However, in both sexes, the protective effects of progesterone and estradiol were not observed in the presence of either caspase or PARP inhibition.ConclusionsSex differences exist in both the amount of cell death produced and those elements of the cell death pathway activated following an ischemic insult. There are also some sex differences in the effectiveness of steroid hormones to provide neuroprotection following an ischemic insult—namely MPA was only protective in female-derived tissue. This adds further support to the notion sex is an important factor to consider when investigating future drug targets for CNS disorders, such as ischemic stroke.