Published: 11-02-2015 15:51 | Updated: 11-02-2015 17:38

Gender, Health, Rights and Identity in the Brain

As CfGM kickstarts an innovative seminars series on Gender, Health and Human Rights, a new study published in Journal of Neuroscience found that - in average - the white matter of transgender individuals is distinct from either female and male, hinting to a biological bias for gender identity.

by Riccardo Guidi

Last week, the Centre for Gender Medicine (CfGM) kicked-off the 8 week mini academy “Gender, Health and Rights” at Karolinska Institutet, the first academic platform on the topic of gender, sex, human rights and identity in the context of physical and psychological health. The event - organised in collaboration with the KI’s Centre for Global Health and co-directed by Giulia Gaudenzi and Karin Båge- reproposed the MOOC International Women's Health and Human Rights from Stanford University MOOC, this time to students and researchers at KI as well as students from other institutions and general public.

Gender Health and Rights seminars

For the occasion, the CfGM wants to promoted an ethically conducted research that sheds light on the biological characteristic of female and male. And - of course - of people who transitioned.

Belonging to a gender

Our sense of belonging to a gender is a fundamental part of ourselves. Because not always the perceived identity coincides with the biological sex, people who decide to undergo sexual transition require support and special medical attention.

In a new study, the lab of Rupert Lanzenberger, from the Medical University of Vienna, has investigated the biological causes underpinning “the gender dimorphisms in human behavior, cognition, and emotion”. In the study, the researchers found that gender identity of an individual people is somehow based in their neural connections.

The team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on women, men and transgender (both male-to-female and female-to-male) to look at the overall brain structure to the finest detail, and found that the microstructures that link different parts of the brain are different between males and females.

Gender Bender Bricks by Windell Oskay

The ‘gendered brain’

"In the four groups analyzed - explains Georg Kranz, leading author of the study - we found a difference in the so-called mean diffusivity”. This parameter looks at how water molecules travel through the brain, revealing patterns of the tissue at microscopic details. “The mean diffusivity was higher in females, lower in transgender m-> f and f->m, and the lowest in males”. These data suggest the existence of a correlation between the gender identity and surface of white matter.

However, researchers warn against any speculation: “The biological basis for this difference are not yet fully understood”. Scientists suggest that their study may point to a difference in the number of axons or their diameter, or in the density of white matter or in its maturity. We just do not know yet.

Could this work be used to identify a person gender based on their white matter?

There are transsexual people who have always known about their identity, while others may have discovered it through years in life. Because of construction and constraints of society, there is confusion - sometimes even in our own understanding. Could this work help us to identify a person real gender identity with a quick brain scan?

"The differences that we have seen - says researchers - are significant, but not definitive. By this I mean that the groups, at least in part, overlap with each other. You can not be said female, male or transgender just looking into his brain structure."

While more research will be conducted on the social and biological factors that influence gender identity, the CfGM will continue to support and communicate research that interest transgender people, as a minority of the society that may requires support and special medical attention.