Male and female brains are basically different after all!
Posted by jonjayray on Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 09:35 AM
Sadly for the feminists! Research showing big and significant differences in male and female brains now goes back a long way. Below are a few excerpts from a recent survey of the state of our knowledge in that field
A generation of neuroscientists came to maturity believing that “sex differences in the brain” referred primarily to mating behaviors, sex hormones and the hypothalamus. That view, however, has now been knocked aside by a surge of findings that highlight the influence of sex on many areas of cognition and behavior, including memory, emotion, vision, hearing, the processing of faces and the brain’s response to stress hormones. This progress has been accelerated in the past five to 10 years by the growing use of sophisticated noninvasive imaging techniques such as positron-emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can peer into the brains of living subjects.
These imaging experiments reveal that anatomical variations occur in an assortment of regions throughout the brain. Jill M. Goldstein of Harvard Medical School and her colleagues, for example, used MRI to measure the sizes of many cortical and subcortical areas. Among other things, these investigators found that parts of the frontal cortex, the seat of many higher cognitive functions, are bulkier in women than in men, as are parts of the limbic cortex, which is involved in emotional responses. In men, on the other hand, parts of the parietal cortex, which is involved in space perception, are bigger than in women, as is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that responds to emotionally arousing information—to anything that gets the heart pumping and the adrenaline flowing. These size differences, as well as others mentioned throughout the article, are relative: they refer to the overall volume of the structure relative to the overall volume of the brain.
Differences in the size of brain structures are generally thought to reflect their relative importance to the animal. For example, primates rely more on vision than olfaction; for rats, the opposite is true. As a result, primate brains maintain proportionately larger regions devoted to vision, and rats devote more space to olfaction. So the existence of widespread anatomical disparities between men and women suggests that sex does influence the way the brain works.
Other investigations are finding anatomical sex differences at the cellular level. For example, Sandra Witelson and her colleagues at McMaster University discovered that women possess a greater density of neurons in parts of the temporal lobe cortex associated with language processing and comprehension. On counting the neurons in postmortem samples, the researchers found that of the six layers present in the cortex, two show more neurons per unit volume in females than in males. Similar findings were subsequently reported for the frontal lobe. With such information in hand, neuroscientists can now explore whether sex differences in neuron number correlate with differences in cognitive abilities—examining, for example, whether the boost in density in the female auditory cortex relates to women’s enhanced performance on tests of verbal fluency.
Such anatomical diversity may be caused in large part by the activity of the sex hormones that bathe the fetal brain. These steroids help to direct the organization and wiring of the brain during development and influence the structure and neuronal density of various regions. Interestingly, the brain areas that Goldstein found to differ between men and women are ones that in animals contain the highest number of sex hormone receptors during development. This correlation between brain region size in adults and sex steroid action in utero suggests that at least some sex differences in cognitive function do not result from cultural influences or the hormonal changes associated with puberty—they are there from birth.
Several intriguing behavioral studies add to the evidence that some sex differences in the brain arise before a baby draws its first breath. Through the years, many researchers have demonstrated that when selecting toys, young boys and girls part ways. Boys tend to gravitate toward balls or toy cars, whereas girls more typically reach for a doll. But no one could really say whether those preferences are dictated by culture or by innate brain biology. To address this question, Melissa Hines of City University London and Gerianne M. Alexander of Texas A&M University turned to monkeys, one of our closest animal cousins. The researchers presented a group of vervet monkeys with a selection of toys, including rag dolls, trucks and some gender-neutral items such as picture books. They found that male monkeys spent more time playing with the “masculine” toys than their female counterparts did, and female monkeys spent more time interacting with the playthings typically preferred by girls. Both sexes spent equal time monkeying with the picture books and other gender-neutral toys.
Because vervet monkeys are unlikely to be swayed by the social pressures of human culture, the results imply that toy preferences in children result at least in part from innate biological differences. This divergence, and indeed all the anatomical sex differences in the brain, presumably arose as a result of selective pressures during evolution. In the case of the toy study, males—both human and primate—prefer toys that can be propelled through space and that promote rough-and-tumble play. These qualities, it seems reasonable to speculate, might relate to the behaviors useful for hunting and for securing a mate. Similarly, one might also hypothesize that females, on the other hand, select toys that allow them to hone the skills they will one day need to nurture their young.
Simon Baron-Cohen and his associates at the University of Cambridge took a different but equally creative approach to addressing the influence of nature versus nurture regarding sex differences. Many researchers have described disparities in how “people-centered” male and female infants are. For example, Baron-Cohen and his student Svetlana Lutchmaya found that one-year-old girls spend more time looking at their mothers than boys of the same age do. And when these babies are presented with a choice of films to watch, the girls look longer at a film of a face, whereas boys lean toward a film featuring cars ...
Another brain region now known to diverge in the sexes anatomically and in its response to stress is the hippocampus, a structure crucial for memory storage and for spatial mapping of the physical environment. Imaging consistently demonstrates that the hippocampus is larger in women than in men. These anatomical differences might well relate somehow to differences in the way males and females navigate. Many studies suggest that men are more likely to navigate by estimating distance in space and orientation (“dead reckoning”), whereas women are more likely to navigate by monitoring landmarks. Interestingly, a similar sex difference exists in rats. Male rats are more likely to navigate mazes using directional and positional information, whereas female rats are more likely to navigate the same mazes using available landmarks. (Investigators have yet to demonstrate, however, that male rats are less likely to ask for directions.)
Even the neurons in the hippocampus behave differently in males and females, at least in how they react to learning experiences. For example, Janice M. Juraska and her associates at the University of Illinois have shown that placing rats in an “enriched environment”—cages filled with toys and with fellow rodents to promote social interactions—produced dissimilar effects on the structure of hippocampal neurons in male and female rats. In females, the experience enhanced the “bushiness” of the branches in the cells’ dendritic trees—the many-armed structures that receive signals from other nerve cells. This change presumably reflects an increase in neuronal connections, which in turn is thought to be involved with the laying down of memories. In males, however, the complex environment either had no effect on the dendritic trees or pruned them slightly ...
In a comprehensive 2001 report on sex differences in human health, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences asserted that “sex matters. Sex, that is, being male or female, is an important basic human variable that should be considered when designing and analyzing studies in all areas and at all levels of biomedical and health-related research.”
Neuroscientists are still far from putting all the pieces together—identifying all the sex-related variations in the brain and pinpointing their influences on cognition and propensity for brain-related disorders. Nevertheless, the research conducted to date certainly demonstrates that differences extend far beyond the hypothalamus and mating behavior. Researchers and clinicians are not always clear on the best way to go forward in deciphering the full influences of sex on the brain, behavior and responses to medications. But growing numbers now agree that going back to assuming we can evaluate one sex and learn equally about both is no longer an option.