Throughout childhood and adolescence, we are often told that males and females are very different. As we grow into adulthood, the physical and mental differences become more prominent. Mentally, males and females seem to operate differently to the untrained eye. However, scientists have found that males and females have major differences in their brain anatomy and physiology that contribute to the variations we see on the surface.
In the past, scientists speculated that male and female brains differ in their anatomy and chemical processing. This idea became prominent through previous speculations that female representation was low in math and science disciplines. Past hypotheses suggested that women had smaller brains in comparison to males. This suggested that their cognitive abilities were inferior. However, this has been strongly disproven through multiple experiments. Male and female brains are actually fairly similar, but differences exist in the size of different lobes, hypothalamus, and amygdala areas.
Lobe size often suggests varying amounts of neuronal networks that can have a large impact on the behavior of the individual. The frontal cortex is larger in women than in men, which suggests that women are more involved in emotional responses. Additionally, women have larger hippocampi than men, which affects memory storage, chronic stress management, and spatial mapping of the surrounding physical environment. This allows women to be more efficient in navigating through the use of landmarks rather than direction and positional information. This is supported by experiments comparing mice raised in an enriched environment to those raised in a plain environment. The enriched environments had many landmarks whereas the plain environments did not. Overall, the mice in the enriched environment had increased neural connections in the hippocampus, which altered the structure of the hippocampus to be similar to the shape found in females.
On the other hand, men have bigger parietal cortexes and amygdalae. This suggests that they are more in tune with spatial perception and emotionally arousing information, such has adrenaline flow and higher pulse rates during acute stressful situations due to increased serotonin uptake. It is postulated that these structural differences lead to behaviors that contribute strongly to gender roles.
A lot of these differences are predicted to be related to the different levels of sex hormones in males and females. During fetal development, the brain is bathed in sex hormones, which may influence the overall brain structure and wiring. This is further supported by experiments that found greater differences in the structure and electric connectivity of male and female brains in species with higher concentrations of sex hormones during fetal development.
Structural differences in the brain can alter how different neurochemicals are absorbed and released. This function leads to increased risks of developing mental illnesses. For example, men have serotonin levels that are 52% higher than women. This suggests why more women are diagnosed with depression than men. Women are also more susceptible to cocaine and amphetamine addiction because estrogen greatly increases dopamine receptor activity, which is highly associated with these drugs.
In addition to increasing the risks of contracting diseases or addictions, the structure of the male and female brains differ in schizophrenia. Women generally have larger orbitofrontal-to-amygdala ratios (OAR). In female schizophrenia patients, their brains have a smaller OAR. In contrast, male patients with schizophrenia have an increased OAR. This finding suggests that schizophrenia is a different disease in male and female patients. Similar situations can also be seen in depression and post-traumatic stress patients. This opens the possibility of sex-specific treatments for many mental illnesses.
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Resources: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/346/6212/915, https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-womens-brains-are-different.html, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/04/study-finds-some-significant-differences-brains-men-and-women, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/his-brain-her-brain-2012-10-23/
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