From the New Scientist 2012: The sexes may be more alike than we thought. A startling new theory says that some of the disparities between our brains may be there to make us act the same
SEVERAL years ago, the car I was driving was rear-ended by another at a stop sign. No one was hurt, but my passenger and I had to wait around to give a statement to the local police. Later on I asked my companion if he had noticed that the officer addressed most of the questions to him, even though I was the one who had been driving. "I think he was just afraid you were going to do the typical female thing and fall apart," he replied.
The notion that men can face adversity with stoicism while women are more likely to respond with histrionics is just one example of the gender stereotypes that permeate our culture. If my friend was right, they even persist among those who should be taking particular care to treat people equally.
Perhaps such prejudice is justified, though. After all, in recent years evidence has turned up of numerous differences between men and women's brains, whether at the level of synapses, signalling chemicals, or gross anatomy. Brains come in hues of either pink or blue, as one researcher puts it.
But could we be overlooking an important caveat? A new theory that has sprung from research on prairie voles says that at least some of those disparities evolved not to create differences in behaviour or ability, but to prevent them. They are there to compensate for the genetic or hormonal differences that are necessary to create two sexes with different sets of genitals and reproductive behaviours.
If that sounds paradoxical, imagine comparing a chunky mountain bike with a lightweight road bike. To compensate for the mountain bike's greater resistance, you have to pedal harder to reach the same speed; one difference makes you introduce another to achieve the same output. In brain terms, while certain circuits may be shaded pink or blue, that would not stop the output, or behaviour, being a uniform purple.
Of course this "compensation theory" will not explain away all brain differences between the sexes, but it could account for some. The idea is still in its infancy and so far has largely been overlooked. If it is right, though, our innate abilities may not be so different after all.
"Compensation is a concept that most people haven't thought about and it's important," says Larry Cahill, a neuroscientist who researches human sex differences at the University of California, Irvine. "This is something we need to be paying attention to."
For most of history, men's and women's different roles in life were assumed to be mainly innate and unalterable. This was challenged in the west with the rise of feminism in the second half of the last century. Perhaps the different behaviours of boys and girls arose because of cultural norms: parents praising boys for romping and smashing toy cars, for instance, while expecting girls to be more reserved and play with their dolls.
Around the same time, though, new light was being shed on the biology of gender. In the womb, we all start out more or less female, until sometime between six and 12 weeks of pregnancy. Then, in male fetuses, a gene on the Y chromosome causes certain cells to make testosterone, which leads to the development of the penis and testicles. Female fetuses do not have this "testosterone bath" and so develop female reproductive organs.
But the sex hormones' influence is not limited to our gonads: they also play a key role in the brain's development, influencing the architecture of various neural circuits. As well as establishing these anatomical differences, the sex hormones presumably affect our behaviour as adults too, as their receptors have been found in many brain regions.
Understanding the ways in which male and female brains differ has become a hot topic in neuroscience, particularly in the past decade with the growth of brain scanning as a research tool. For instance, one of the most famous findings is that men seem to have a larger region of the brain thought to be involved in spatial reasoning, such as that used in a task like mentally rotating three-dimensional figures: the left-hand-side inferior parietal lobule, located just over the ear. Women, on the other hand, appear to have larger areas of the brain associated with language.
A common critique of this sort of work is that there is only a small average difference between the sexes, with more variability within each sex than between men and women as a whole. The results tell us about population averages, not individuals, in other words.
Even so, any such findings tend to be seized on by the media. UK newspapers are fascinated by neuroscience, according to an analysis of their coverage of this topic over the past 10 years. In a detailed breakdown of the stories by subject area, sex differences came eighth out of 41 neuroscience categories (Neuron a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2012.04.004%3E">http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2012.04.004>; , vol 74, p 22). As with any science stories in the media, findings tend to be exaggerated. "They want to take these results and try to spread males and females way apart on function and ability," says Cahill.
It is certainly true that while society has become more equal in many respects, men still outnumber women in mathematics, engineering and many areas of science. While young girls do as well in these subjects as their male classmates, they start lagging behind as they grow up and enter further education. For instance, women make up about 20 per cent of computer science students in the US, and the same fraction of engineering students. Is it down to innate brain differences or cultural conditioning that they miss out on these well-paying sectors so crucial to today's technology-oriented society?
Research into brain sex differences has also fuelled calls to educate boys and girls separately in same-sex classes or schools, particularly in the US. It is argued that teaching methods need to be tailored to those differently hued brains.
With this sort of research having such significant implications, it is important to be aware of possible flaws. The compensation theory first caught people's attention in 2004, with the publication of a review entitled "Sex differences in adult and developing brains: compensation, compensation, compensation" (Endocrinology, vol 145, p 1063 a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1210/en.2003-1504%3E">http://dx.doi.org/10.1210/en.2003-1504>; ).
The author was Geert de Vries, who studies hormones and brain signalling systems in rodents at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In the 1980s he stumbled across a big sex difference in the brains of prairie voles, small rodents found in the US Midwest.
Unlike most mammals, prairie voles are monogamous and the males are devoted fathers. They spend just as much time as the females licking their pups and toting them around. Yet compared with the females, males have many more receptors in the brain for vasopressin, a brain signalling molecule that has been linked to parental care.
De Vries recalls: "When we linked this sexually [different] system to a behaviour that is spectacularly similar in males and females, I thought, 'Wait a moment, why are the sex differences opposite from the things they are doing? Could the differences be there so they can act the same?'"
The more de Vries considered the idea, the more it made sense to him. The female voles' maternal devotion was demonstrably triggered by the hormonal changes of pregnancy. The males' vasopressin circuits seemed to be compensating for the lack of pregnancy hormones. And if that kind of compensation was going on in prairie voles, could something similar also be happening elsewhere?
De Vries realised that the most likely candidates for compensatory circuits were those that are influenced by sex hormones or the sex chromosomes. Poring through the research literature, he found several possible compensatory mechanisms in other animals, including rats, mice and zebra finches.
While de Vries had outlined the compensation theory before, his 2004 review succeeded in bringing the idea to wider notice. One convert is Margaret McCarthy, a sex differences researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. "Many of the sex differences we see in the brain are there to help males and females develop their different reproductive strategies," she says. "But those differences also carry with them some constraints. Males have high testosterone; females have cycles of various hormones. And those hormones come with costs with regards to behaviours outside reproduction."
To date, the evidence for compensation in people seems thin on the ground. But could it be going unnoticed because of the assumption that a difference in the brain always means a difference in performance?
In a 2006 review of sex difference research, Cahill cited several brain-scanning studies that had turned up differences in men and women that were not accompanied by differences in their performance. While the mechanisms involved are unknown, Cahill thinks these could represent compensation in action, although they had not been noted as such by those who did the research (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 7, p 477 a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrn1909%3E">http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrn1909>; ).
For instance, in one study men and women were asked to name everyday objects in photos that were flashed up at a challenging pace. According to the PET scanner, men showed more activation in certain brain regions thought to be responsible for visual recognition, although they scored about the same as the women (Neuroimage, vol 20, p 940 a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1053-8119%2803%2900284-2%3E">http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1053-8119%2803%2900284-2>; ). The authors speculated that the men might have needed to work harder to get the same result due to women's superior language abilities.
Cahill himself may have found evidence of compensatory circuits at work, involving the amygdalae, a pair of almond-shaped structures deep within the brain thought to be involved in the processing and memory of emotional reactions. Cahill's group showed that even when the brain is at rest, amygdala activity is different in men and women (Neuroimage, vol 30, p 452 a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.09.065%3E">http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.09.065>; ).
Equal but different
That made neuroscientists sit up and take notice, because most imaging studies require resting activity levels to be subtracted from levels seen during experimental tasks in order to reveal changes caused by the task. Given these findings, important results may be going unseen because at the moment men and women's results tend not to be analysed separately.
Cahill thinks the difference in amygdala activity could be a compensatory mechanism to make up for differences in testosterone levels. "There are instances where everyone agrees that there is no sex difference on the behavioural level. But that doesn't mean there isn't a sex difference in the brain," he says. "It remains possible that the equal behaviour was achieved in different ways.
I can't help but think of compensation when I remember the car accident. I don't think my behaviour was any different from that of my male friend. We were both a bit rattled, of course, but more impatient to finish the paperwork and be on our way. But were our brains behaving any differently? Recent work from Jill Goldstein's lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston suggests they may have been (Journal of Neuroscience, vol 30, p 431 a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3021-09.2010%3E">http://dx.doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3021-09.2010>; ). While she did not go looking for a compensation effect, she believes de Vries's theory could explain her results.
Goldstein's team did fMRI scans on 12 women and 12 men as they viewed a variety of photos, some of which were designed to be shocking (think car accidents and dismembered bodies). The women did the test twice: once at the beginning of their menstrual cycle, when oestrogen levels would have been low and then again just before ovulation, when they would have been peaking.
When viewing the gruesome photos the women reported similar subjective feelings of stress as the men, irrespective of the stage in their menstrual cycle. But when their oestrogen was high, the women had less activity than men in several different brain regions involved in the stress response. Goldstein thinks this was to damp down a more sensitive stress response that otherwise would have been triggered by the surging oestrogen. "They had the same subjective feelings of stress but their brains were acting slightly differently to get to that state," she says.
While the compensation theory has not yet gained much traction among neuroscientists, it is getting harder to ignore as the number of possible human examples accumulates. Even where compensatory brain differences have no net effect on behaviour or ability, they could still help explain why certain medical conditions are more common in one sex than the other. Women, for instance, are more vulnerable to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, while men have a higher incidence of developmental disorders like autism.
Goldstein's work on stress is a case in point. "We need to understand how these circuits develop differently in the healthy male and female brain," she says. "Only then can we understand how these circuits are disrupted in psychiatric disorders."
No one is saying the compensation theory can explain away all the observable brain differences between men and women. Many of them do in fact correspond to differences in performance. But some do not.
That suggests we should be more careful about how we interpret brain data from now on, according to Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago, who coined a phrase with the title of her book on sex differences, Pink Brain, Blue Brain a href="http://amzn.to/vYlMCG%3E">http://amzn.to/vYlMCG>; (OneWorld, 2010).
"The more we learn, the more we realise that sex differences don't translate very well into that Mars-Venus pop culture everyone seems to want to project," she says. "Neuroscientists, the media, parents - we all need to be careful about how this data is interpreted and what conclusions we draw from it."
Men and women: Different brains, same aims
23 May 2012 by Kayt Sukel a href="http://www.newscientist.com/search?rbauthors=Kayt+Sukel%3E">http://www.newscientist.com/search?rbauthors=Kayt+Sukel>;
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Her new book is Dirty Minds: How our brains influence love, sex, and relationships a href="http://books.simonandschuster.com/buy/Dirty-Minds/9781451611557%3E">http://books.simonandschuster.com/buy/Dirty-Minds/9781451611557>; (Simon & Schuster)
Kayt Sukel is a science and travel writer based in Texas.