Brains of men and women wired differently

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Credit: Ragini Verma, PhD, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences
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Although it seems a given that men and women are different, including how their brains process information, a new study now has evidence that proves it.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania discovered striking differences in the wiring of male and female brains. For example, women have more connections between the left and right hemispheres in one region of the brain, whereas men have them within hemispheres – and in a different region of the brain, it’s the exact opposite.

The study’s findings were published recently in an online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), where researchers say the differences could explain why men, on average, are more adept at performing single tasks like navigating, while women are usually more skilled at doing multiple tasks at once and problem-solving in groups.

This is the largest study to date to compare neural connections between the brains of women and men. In this regard, the researchers found major, but complimentary differences, as evidenced by comparing brain maps between the sexes.

In men, for example, the maps show increased connectivity in their brains that go from front to back within the upper hemisphere. However, in women, the brain maps show increased connectivity from left to right in the lower hemisphere.

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Senior author Ragini Verma, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine's, says that these maps reveal a stark, yet complementary difference in the human brain that “helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at others."

The researchers indicate that these differences likely explain why men tend to be better when it comes to processing coordinated action, and why women are likely better at processing spatial and intuitive information.

Prior research has found brain differences between the sexes, but not in a large population or to the degree of providing evidence of differences in neural wiring between men and women.

For the study, researchers utilized diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which is a very sensitive type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). DTI works by keeping track of water moving along nerve fibers, so illustrating this water movement creates a clear map of how the water travels and connects various parts of the brain.

According to the research team, differences in brain connectivity between the sexes was more prominent among participants who were older than 13 years of age, with females doing much better than males on tests related to word, attention, social and face cognition, whereas males outperformed females on tests related to spatial processing and sensorimotor speed.

The researchers explained that the detailed brain maps showing differences in how males and females think, not only provide evidence that their brains are wired differently, but they also provide greater insight into the roots of neuropsychiatric disorders that are frequently gender-related.

SOURCE: Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain; Madhura Ingalhalikar, Alex Smith, Drew Parker, Theodore D. Satterthwaite, Mark A. Elliott, Kosha Ruparel, Hakon Hakonarson, Raquel E. Gur, Ruben C. Gur, and Ragini Verma; PNAS (published December 2, 2013); DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1316909110.

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