As you may have long suspected, what’s inside your head is not the same as what’s inside your husband’s head.
There are gender differences in the brain, and not just the usual Mars vs. Venus issues. In fact, medical and biological reasons may account for a host of differences that could affect how men and women are treated for the same illnesses. Doctors are on the cusp of exciting observations about brain function.
Vive la difference
In recent years, researchers have found verifiable brain differences between the genders. Scientists have suggested that there may be as many as 100 documented differences. They include the fact that men’s brains tend to be about 100 grams larger than women’s, although the frontal lobe and limbic cortex tend to be larger in women than in men. The limbic cortex handles the analysis of emotional content, including fear and anger, as well as nurturing instincts. Some researchers believe this difference is responsible for that “maternal instinct” women are said to have.
In addition, the hippocampus tends to be proportionately bigger in women than men, and it is the hippocampus that is thought to control both short- and long-term memory–hence the ability to keep track of those birthdays and anniversaries.
Brain imaging has also shown real structural differences in brain anatomy. In men, the almond-shaped amygdala, which processes emotional memory and the evaluation of emotional stimuli, fires on the right side first; in women, it fires on the left side first. Differences in one side of the brain vs. the other may help explain why girls tend to develop language skills earlier than boys.
A study from the National Institutes of Health found that boys’ and girls’ growing brains do develop in different ways, and similar research has been conducted at Virginia Tech University. Some researchers believe that understanding the differences in the ways boys and girls learn can help educators develop more effective curricula.
New research frontiers
This new research has allowed professionals to discuss differences between men and women without facing the taint of sexism. And that shift in attitude gives doctors information that may lead to better treatment of disease, ranging from tumors to depression. These differences are now being used to look at the ways in which men and women age differently.
In the past, researchers did not like to study women’s brains because of the hormonal differences. They were worried that the hormones would make things off. But they are now more open to it. Recently, it is becoming more objective and less subjective to a greater degree. Treatment development may be able to be based on specific biology moving forward.
In fact, research shows that it may be the presence of those different hormones in different amounts that causes such differences to develop.
Men and women have different hormones, and women have a greater preponderance of progesterone and estrogen. There is a difference in the way a woman’s brain regulates that.
Men are less likely to be diagnosed with depression than women, but boys are more likely to be diagnosed with autism and dyslexia than girls. Studies from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine suggest that the flight-or-fight response to stress is more prevalent in men than women.
Doctors are optimistic that such research can help physicians understand pain pathways and why women tend to suffer more from chronic pain. Such understanding, of course, may lead to better pain prevention and treatments. Researchers at UCLA’s Center for Neurovisceral Sciences and Women’s Health, for example, are looking at differences in response to pain to help develop more effective treatments for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The researchers have found that one common IBS drug, Lotronex, tends to work better for women than men.
But even as all kinds of gender-based brain difference research proceeds, some mysteries remain. In terms of emotional and intellectual differences, and where those areas of the brain reside, and to what degree gender has an effect on that, no one knows.