Chicken or Egg? New Research Shows Men and Women’s Brains are Wired Differently

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Drs. Raquel and Ruben Gur, Autism and Schizophrenia research experts
Drs. Raquel and Ruben Gur

A recent study at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine found significant differences between how male and female brains are hardwired. The results of this research, published December 2nd in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer evidence that there is biology behind some of the behavioral differences observed among men and women that may offer important new insight in the treatment of neurological disorders known to vary by age and gender such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia.

Two of the study’s primary authors are former NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantees (and husband and wife) Raquel Gur, M.D., Ph.D. and Ruben Gur, Ph.D., Professors of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine. The researchers found clear differences in the brains of men and women including:

  • Men had stronger front-to-back circuits and links between perception and action
  • Women had strong left-to-right links between reasoning and intuition
  • Men tested better on spatial processing, motor skills and sensorimotor speed
  • Women excelled on tests related to attention, word and face memory and cognition

Researchers analyzed the brains of 428 men and 521 women between the ages of 8 and 22. Using a tool called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), the scientists could indirectly outline the path of the myelinated axons, the “wire” section of neurons that facilitate long-range conduction of electrochemical signals.

Researchers noticed that men had great connectivity within hemispheres (in the upper part of the brain), while women had great connection between sides. Women also had more connections among smaller-scale “modules,” while men had strong connections within those subregions. In the cerebellum (lower part of the brain), men had strong connections between hemispheres, which shows strength in translating perception to motor skills. Women had more interconnections across the frontal lobes, making them better intuitive thinkers and multi-taskers, posit the researchers.

"It's quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are," said Dr. Ruben Gur. "Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex related."

While this research has sparked some controversy, and skeptics would like to know if these observed wiring differences might be a result of environmental influences and education rather than a "given" causal determinant of behavioral differences, the findings do offer new insights that may improve the effectiveness of treatments based on gender.  

Learn more in an article from the Los Angeles Times.

Read the press release from Penn Medicine.

Read more about this research in the New York Daily News.

Read the abstract of the research paper.

Article comments

I'm not an imager, and I couldn't work out from the paper how big the differences were between male and female. The authors show the differences are statistically significant, clearly. But are they large enough to be biologically significant? This study had a relatively large sample size. That can sometimes mean that quite small differences can emerge with statistical significance. I am not able to be sure if that is the case here.

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