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The brain between sex and gender – women and men from a neuroscientific perspective Kirsten Jordan 1 Abstract This article offers an overview on sex and gender differences in the brain from a current neuroscientific perspective. I will ask to what extent brain and behaviour are biologically determined with regard to sex differences, and which social and environmental factors have modulating effects. First, I describe the perinatal sexual differentiation of the brain modulated by sex hormones, followed by an analysis of similarities and differences in brain anatomy between adult women and men. Furthermore, it is questioned to what extent women and men also differ with regard to their cognitive and emotional brain functions. Then, the modulability of these functions by biological and environmental factors is discussed. Due to the fact that stereotypes on differences between men and women are popular, current research results are finally introduced showing the influence of stereotypical conceptions on cognitive performance and the underlying brain functions. 2 Introduction Sex and gender differences in the brain belong to the most fascinating research topics of modern neuroscience. In 1903, the provocative book ‘On the Physiological Feeble-Mindedness of Women’ by neurologist Dr. Paul Julius Moebius (1) had sold out eight print runs within a very short time. Today, the book market is virtually flooded with books such as ‘Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps’ (2, 3). These books try to substantiate popular stereotypes on a seemingly Kirsten Jordan 80 scientific basis. There is, however, also literature which, using the latest findings from psychology and brain research, demonstrates to the lay reader that this unbalanced view on sex and gender simply cannot be maintained (e. g. 4–6). This article draws upon the results of these books. From a current neuroscientific perspective, the article examines to what extent our brain and behaviour are biologically determined with regard to sex differences, and which social and environmental factors have modulating effects. First, the perinatal sexual differentiation of the brain modulated by sex hormones is described, which is followed by similarities and differences in brain anatomy between adult women and men. Furthermore , it is questioned to what extent women and men also differ with regard to their cognitive and emotional brain functions. Subsequently, the modulability of these functions by biological and environmental factors is discussed. Due to the fact, that the above-mentioned stereotypes on differences between women and men are widespread, current research results are introduced at the end, examining the influence of these stereotypical conceptions on cognitive performance and the underlying brain functions. 3 Sexual differentiation of the brain The prenatal and early postnatal phases of brain development and their modulation by sex hormones are extremely interesting in view of the sex differences in the brain to be discussed. Already in 1947, the French scientist Alfred Jost became interested in how sex hormones influence the sexual differentiation of the brain and behaviour and performed initial examinations using rabbits (7). It is known today that sex hormones, on one hand, influence neuronal processes by adhering to intracellular receptors that modulate the gene expression as transcription factors . On the other hand, they are able to change the activity of ligand-controlled ion channels using fast so-called nongenomic mechanisms to influence neuronal processes. On the basis of their studies on prenatal effects of testosterone, Phoenix et al. coined the concepts still prevalent today of the organising and activating effects of sex hormones (8). Organising effects of sex hormones result in permanent structural changes in the brain, which can manifest in sex-specific behaviour. In contrast, activating effects of sex hormones modulate the functional interaction within an already existing neuronal structure. Activating as opposed to organising effects of sex hormones lead to rather subtle changes of neuronal connections, the production and release of neurotransmitters, or the sensitivity of receptors (9, 10). In research on the sexual differentiation of the brain, especially those brain regions are well-examined which are related to sexual behaviour. Interestingly these brain regions also show the most distinct sexual dimorphisms. Melissa Hines defines three mutually non-exclusive theories: the classic and the gradual theory, as well as the theory of active feminisation (11, 12). According to the classic theory, androgens (e. g., testosterone) cause the masculinisation of the brain, whereas their ab- The brain between sex and gender 81 sence is rather associated with neuronal feminisation. Hence, a passive feminization is assumed in this model, according to which hormonal stimulation is unnecessary for the development...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781935603689
Related ISBN
9781935603054
MARC Record
OCLC
794925317
Pages
126
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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