Studying Gender Differences in Brain Development to Improve Outcomes in Mental Illness

Theodore D. Satterthwaite, M.D.
Theodore D. Satterthwaite, M.D.

2010 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Theodore D. Satterthwaite, M.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, led research that demonstrated specific gender differences in the effect of puberty on the development of the hippocampus, a brain area important for memory and learning.

In the study, brain imaging in 524 young people between the ages of 10 and 22 (pre- and post-puberty) showed that before puberty, hippocampus size was the same in boys and girls, but that after puberty the female hippocampi were considerably larger. The effect was found to be specific to the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is part of the limbic system—thought to be primarily responsible for emotional life—and not to other regions of the brain that are also part of the limbic system, such as the amygdala.

Reporting their results in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the research team stated that these findings have relevance for understanding psychiatric disorders with adolescent onset and strong gender disparities, such as depression and anxiety disorders, more predominant in women, and schizophrenia, which occurs more frequently in men. An increased understanding of gender disparities in mental illness should enable more targeted and effective treatments.

The team members included 2005 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Daniel H. Wolf, M.D., Ph.D., recipient of the 2009 Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Sidney R. Baer, Jr. Prize for Innovative and Promising Schizophrenia Research; and the co-winners of the Foundation’s 2009 Lieber Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Schizophrenia Research, Raquel E. Gur, M.D., Ph.D., (also a 1999 NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee) and Ruben C. Gur, Ph.D., (also a 2007 NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee).

Read the paper abstract.