Transgender brains are more like their desired gender from an early age
May 24, 2018
European Society of Endocrinology
Brain activity and structure in transgender adolescents more
closely resembles the typical activation patterns of their desired
gender, according to new research. The findings suggest that differences
in brain function may occur early in development and that brain imaging
may be a useful tool for earlier identification of transgenderism in
Brain activity and structure in transgender adolescents more closely
resembles the typical activation patterns of their desired gender,
according to findings to be presented in Barcelona, at the European
Society of Endocrinology annual meeting, ECE 2018. These findings
suggest that differences in brain function may occur early in
development and that brain imaging may be a useful tool for earlier identification of transgenderism in young people.
Transgenderism is the experience, or identification with, a gender
different to the assigned biological sex, whilst gender dysphoria (GD)
is the distress experienced by transgender people, and may be present
from a very young age. Although GD incidence is rare, gender identity is
an essential part of psychological health, and if unaddressed can lead
to serious psychological issues. Current strategies for addressing GD in younger people involve psychotherapy, or delaying puberty with hormones,
so that decisions on transgender therapy can be made at an older age.
Genetics and hormones contribute to sex differences in brain development
and function that lead to more male- or female-typical characteristics; however, these processes are not well established. Furthermore, little
is known on how early in life, or to what extent, the gender-typical characteristics of transgender people become established. Earlier
diagnosis or better understanding of transgenderism could help to
improve quality of life for young transgender people, and help families
to make more informed decisions on treatment.
In this study, Dr. Julie Bakker from the University of Liège, Belgium,
and her colleagues from the Center of Expertise on Gender Dysphoria at
the VU University Medical Center, the Netherlands, examined sex
differences in the brain activation patterns of young transgender
people. The study included both adolescent boys and girls with gender
dysphoria and used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to assess
brain activation patterns in response to a pheromone known to produce gender-specific activity. The pattern of brain activation in both
transgender adolescent boys and girls more closely resembled that of non-transgender boys and girls of their desired gender. In addition, GD adolescent girls showed a male-typical brain activation pattern during a visual/spatial memory exercise. Finally, some brain structural changes
were detected that were also more similar, but not identical, to those
typical of the desired gender of GD boys and girls.
Dr Bakker says, "Although more research is needed, we now have evidence
that sexual differentiation of the brain differs in young people with
GD, as they show functional brain characteristics that are typical of
their desired gender."
Dr Bakker's research will now investigate the role of hormones during
puberty on brain development and transgender differences, to help guide
and improve future diagnosis and therapy for GD adolescents.
Dr Bakker comments, "We will then be better equipped to support these
young people, instead of just sending them to a psychiatrist and hoping
that their distress will disappear spontaneously."