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Published on: February 12, 2016
by Ryan O’Hare for Daily Mail:
The old adage that men and women’s brains are ‘just wired differently’ may be more accurate than first thought.
Scientists have produced a set of ‘road maps’ for the brain’s connections, which they say could explain ‘typically’ male and female behaviours.
The maps show that men’s brains may be hardwired for better special awareness and motor skills, while connections in women’s brains are wired to give them an edge in memory and social cognition.
The findings could help to shed light on brain diseases and behavioural conditions which progress faster in one sex than the other.
While our brains share a common ‘template’ for connecting the different areas, researchers wanted to find out if there were templates for men and women which could explain behaviours we might typically associate with sexes.
These included men being more likely to be better at learning and performing a single task, and women being more likely to have better memory and social cognition skills.
A team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of 900 men, women and children aged eight to 22.
From the scans the researchers were able to create a complete road map of the connections in each of their brains, called their connectome.
All connectomes are based on a common set of wiring between the regions of the brain, such as connecting the region which deals with speech to that which processes hearing, giving a fixed frame of reference for researchers.
But the team found subtle differences in how brains were wired in men and women.
According to the findings, male brains had stronger connections in areas associated with motor and spatial skills, meaning they were more likely to perform better in tasks associated with spatial awareness and hand-eye co-ordination.
But in the female brains, areas associated with social cognition, attention and memory had higher connectivity, which could give them the edge in terms of memory and social cognition skills.
The authors wrote: ‘Links between brain structure and behaviour possibly rely on a complex interplay between multiple features of the neurobiological mechanisms in the brain network.’
The latest findings, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, expand on work in 2013 which highlighted differences in the brain connectivity between men and women.
However, it remains unclear if learning a male-specific skill would lead to a more ‘male’ brain, or whether the behaviours are more ingrained because of the way the brain is hardwired – a neurological chicken and egg situation.
Commenting on the findings, Dr Ragini Verma, a researcher at Pennsylvania and senior author on the study, explained that these road maps could lead to earlier identification and better management of psychological conditions which affect males more than females or vice versa.
‘On a macro level, behaviour-related disorders manifest and progress differently based on sex, and these findings should advance conversations about how we manage some of those conditions,’ explained Dr Verma.
She added: ‘Our results suggest a synchrony between sex-related differences in the brain network and behaviour.
‘Thus, in a near future, we may be able to pinpoint precisely at the sub-network level what we know about an individual’s brain and how to manage care of whatever disorders or ailments they are facing.
Writing in an accompanying review article in the journal, Professor Margaret McCarthy, from the University of Maryland, said: ‘The continued interest in and study of sex differences in brain and behaviour are not going away any time soon.
‘The pervasive impact of sex on so many aspects of neural functioning in both the healthy and diseased brain demands that as neuroscientists, we incorporate sex as a biological variable in order to reach conclusions that are applicable to all.’
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SEXES
The latest findings build on a body of research, including a 2013 paper by the group, which showed the brains of men and women are wired differently.
The study looked at almost 1,000 males and females and found significant differences between the brain connectivity between the sexes.
Earlier this year, results emerged from a large-scale study carried out at the University of Basel that focused on determining the gender-dependent relationship between emotions, memory performance and brain activity.
Using fMRI data from 696 test subjects, the researchers were also able to show that stronger appraisal of negative emotional image content by the female participants is linked to increased brain activity in motoric regions.
However, while these data provide an outline for the biological basis of gender, gender identity is an increasingly complex subject which encompasses the biological and societal definitions of male and female.
Frequent practice of new skills, such as practising a foreign language, can strengthen brain connections.
In this context, it remains unclear if learning male-specific skills could lead to a more ‘male’ brain – through social reinforcement of stereotypes – or whether the behaviours come more easily because of the way the brain is hardwired to begin with.
Photo: Scientists have produced a set of ‘road maps’ for the brain, which they say could explain ‘typically’ male and female behaviours.The image illustrates the differences in connections, where male brains are more hardwired for motor and spacial skills, while females may have the edge in memory and social cognition
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