From Body to Brain: Considering the Neurobiological Effects of Female Genital Cutting

Female genital cutting (FGC) is an ancient tradition unbounded by religion and practiced primarily in Africa and the regions to which Africans have immigrated. All types of FGC involve cutting neural innervation to the vulva: the clitoris, labia majora and minora. Most types include excision of the clitoris. Since the tissue of the vulva is highly innervated by nerves and their endings, I postulate here that the brain and spinal cord will respond to FGC as it would to any loss of neural targets or inputs: by rearranging neural networks. This, in turn, would affect neural signaling to target structures and modify sensory perception. Most scientific investigations of FGC have focused on its reproductive consequences. To fully appreciate its effects on the lives of women, however, an understanding beyond the reproductive system is necessary. Exploring the potential neural changes of FGC may help explain the mixed responses of the women themselves and identify new directions for research to understand their lives. A neurobiological analysis may also help us understand how cultural practices inscribe meaning on central nervous system structures, affecting mind as well as body.