Imaging the transgendered brain

For the first time, the brain structure of male-to-female transsexuals has been investigated in living individuals using MRI brain scans, helping to fuel the debate over the possible neural basis of gender identity.

The scientific article, shortly to appear in the neuroscience journal NeuroImage, used MRI brain scans and a technique called voxel based morphometry to compare grey matter in a group of male-to-female transexuals to groups of males and females who have never had gender-identity concerns.

This is not the first time that brain structure has been compared in this way, but earlier studies had been based on post-mortem comparisons. These three studies had found that certain areas in male-to-female transsexuals more commonly resembled the equivalent area in females than males.

This has led some researchers to go as far as suggesting that perhaps the differences are present from birth and that gender-identity difficulties could result from the body and brain following different paths as the developing foetus begins to develop into a specific sex.

However, one difficulty is that all the transgender people examined in these post-mortem studies had been on oestrogen treatment to feminize their bodies, and it hasn’t been clear whether the differences were due to the effect of this hormone rather than something present before.

This new study, led by neuroscientist Eileen Luders, specifically recruited male-to-female transsexuals who had never taken oestrogen and, being in living people, wasn’t affected by whatever led to the person’s death.

In contrast to previous investigations, this new study found that male-to-female transsexuals grey-matter was similar in most areas of the brain to the male rather than female comparison group.

Except, that is, for one area, the putamen, a deep brain structure that forms part of the basal ganglia – known for its wide range of functions and connections to the frontal lobes and action control areas.

Because we know so little about the neuroscience of self-image and gender-identity it’s almost impossible to draw any conclusions for the fact that this specific area seems more ‘feminine’, or that the majority of the other areas seem more ‘masculine’ in terms of size.

What this study does do, however, is add to the increasing evidence that there are some detectable neurological differences in the brains of transgendered people. We’re just not in a position to say much about the significance of this yet.

Link to PubMed entry for ‘in press’ paper.

19 thoughts on “Imaging the transgendered brain”

  1. I don’t think this is surprising. If M-F transgendered individuals were simply like women, one would expect their behavior pre- and post- op to model women as well. This is contended by Johns Hopkins professor Paul McHugh:
    “Men (and until recently they were all men) with whom I spoke before their surgery would tell me that their bodies and sexual identities were at variance. Those I met after surgery would tell me that the surgery and hormone treatments that had made them ‚Äúwomen‚Äù had also made them happy and contented. None of these encounters were persuasive, however. The post-surgical subjects struck me as caricatures of women… Women psychiatrists whom I sent to talk with them would intuitively see through the disguise and the exaggerated postures. ‚ÄúGals know gals,‚Äù one said to me, ‚Äúand that‚Äôs a guy.‚Äù
    “…First, they spent an unusual amount of time thinking and talking about sex and their sexual experiences; their sexual hungers and adventures seemed to preoccupy them. Second, discussion of babies or children provoked little interest from them; indeed, they seemed indifferent to children. But third, and most remarkable, many of these men-who-claimed-to-be-women reported that they found women sexually attractive and that they saw themselves as ‚Äúlesbians.‚Äù When I noted to their champions that their psychological leanings seemed more like those of men than of women, I would get various replies, mostly to the effect that in making such judgments I was drawing on sexual stereotypes.”

    1. That’s interesting Chris, but it doesn’t apply to me as a transsexual.

      Poetically, I am a predominately female soul clothed in a male form. Bluntly, I am a male-to-female transsexual who has chosen to remain in male form out of love for my spouse and my vows to her and God.

      Though I do not attempt to “pass” as a woman, I am indeed a feminine person. What surprises people is that I am feminine yet I am not effeminate. My present form will not allow me to express myself to the full degree that I would like, but within my limitations, I live as a transgendered person: a “blend,” if you will.

      I am feminine in the way I think, in the way I communicate, in my values and interests (and yes, I wish that I could carry a child in pregnancy).

      My sexuality is a bit odd in that I regard myself as asexual, neither attracted to males or females (my wife being the sole, and I believe supernatural, exception).

      At the same time, I must continue to live in the role of a ‘man’ and husband (which does not thrill me, but I do it because of my commitments). Despite this, I am not a ‘man.’ BUT, I am not a ‘woman’ either.

      Anyway, I would caution anyone who assumes that because a transsexual seems to be a caricature, that they are in fact not what they believe. No doubt, there are masculine aspects to these transwomen, just as there are feminine aspects to transmen. Most trans people in the west have been strongly socialized in the gender of their birth-assigned-sex with HUGE negative sanctions for *ANY* expression of gender variance. A more accurate picture might be seen by considering trans people in cultures where they are (at least nominally) accepted.

  2. Chris how could you quote that transphobe Dr McHugh? He’s a conservative, Catholic ideologue. The man is also NOT a gender expert. Very bad form quoting him.
    Also the original Dutch studies from 10 years ago DID show similarities between transsexual women and natal women even without hormone use. I think the problem was the small sample size of the study.

  3. “First Things” is a religious journal. McHugh’s comments would never have survived peer-review in any medical journal, as they’re completely un-evidenced, a result of prejudice. What evidence we do have from psych studies completely contradicts him.
    This study isn’t the first use of fMRI on live subjects though. fMRI has in the past been used to find some of the differences in neural activity between TS people and control groups, by tracking blood flow.
    In men, the limbic system and upper regions of the hypothalamus, the amygdalae and the insular cortex were activated substantially more strongly. “We confirmed this finding in the comparison between the heterosexual men and women of our Cohort”, said Gizewski.
    This specifically male activation of the limbic system was not found in the transsexual sample. Under fMRT, the pictures corresponded rather accurately to those of the female sample.
    Radiologists can now confirm what transsexuals report – that they feel “trapped in the wrong body” – on the basis of the activation of the brain when presented with erotic stimuli. There is obviously a biological correlation with the subjective feelings.
    Р(trans) of fMRT zur Diagnose bei Transsexualität geprüft Ärzte Zeitung, 30.05.2006

  4. i don’t know about being into women, at least in an aggressive, sexual way. But with an article like this one, I think the fact that I feel *extremely* genderqueer bordering on feminine, does enable me to use ‘transgender’ to best describe myself. In a better world, parents would want to help, and would have done so ten years ago, not ‘sort of help’ and by the time I turned 20.

  5. I am a woman who has no interest in babies or children but I don’t think I am transgender to the point I would take hormones and have surgery. I don’t pretend to be a man but instead fight gender stereotypes. I see gender identity as more of a social construct.

    1. Gender identity is not a social construct -__- You’re doing the same thing as those religious doctors, denying a reality a difference between the female and the male brain therefore the explanation of transsexual children. this girls and boys from a very young age identify as the other gender even without knowing about this “social constructs” they’ll act masculine or feminine.

  6. I am transgender. I live and work as a woman. And at present, none other than the people I have informed (which is a small number of people) know that I am transgender.

    However, in contrast to Paul McHugh’s logic –
    – I have had no surgeries and I do not intend to have any.
    – I am attracted to women, but I can be sexually aroused by either gender if blind-folded and with my smell senses shut down.
    – I like the function of my primary sex organ. Its structure is relevant merely as a question of fit with that of my sex partner.
    – I love babies, I wish I could give birth, but I recognize my biological limitation and dependence on a genetic woman to bear my child, and I preserved my sperm before starting hormones.

    While many genetic women have no intention of giving birth or having children, I do. This flies in the face of Paul McHugh’s biggest assumption that somehow to be “truly” female, one must like babies.

    My gender problem included a strong sense that my male secondary sex characteristics did not belong to my body. They were somehow foreign. I “knew” that by age 3 or 4, but could not articulate this until much later. These characteristics were especially painful after puberty as male.

    In addition to my secondary sex characteristics, I had a strong sense by age 3 or 4 that growing up as a man, as manifested in the men around me, was somehow wrong for me. However, I did not speak up due to fear and social taboos.

    While I enjoy wearing human-made articles of clothing meant for women, I find no need to wear only those articles. Clothes are facades for social interactions. They are just clothes! If clothes entirely define you, you have serious self-esteem issue and you need to evaluate your priorities in life.

    I do not know what it means to be “a woman” or “a man”. I only know what it feels like to be me. I never felt like a “woman trapped in a man’s body”, because I have no idea what it feels like to be someone else. I do not know how to compare with another person.

    I felt no different in my mind after taking cross-gender hormones. I was exactly the same person before as I am now.

    I had no gender-specific socially stereotypical inhibitions previously and I do not have them now. I cry as often as I used to when I lived as a boy/man. I was as non-dogmatic before as I am now. I have exactly the same profession now as before. The only thing social gender transition could and has accomplished for me is to make me feel more comfortable with myself and in the world around me.

    Cross-gender hormones only made my secondary sex characteristics more tolerable for me and they helped me not live as a man.

    So there! Everyone is different. The visceral opposition to transgenderism comes from dogma. While there could be certain mental disorders associated with transgenderism, blanket generalizations are unwarranted.

    Transgenderism cannot be purely sociological or sexual as it appears in other creatures for various purposes (ever heard about the gender bending cuttlefish?) and in humans long before sexual maturity. There is a biological aspect to transgenderism, which in a closed-minded society with fixed binary genders screams to be let out. Whether that biological aspect is in the brain or elsewhere is the research being conducted as indicated in the original article above.

    The issue at hand here is not gender though. The issue is the antiquated belief that there are two genders and nothing in between, while in reality, everyone falls somewhere in between. Gender as we know it is a social construct which entails division of labor in society, separation between strength and nurturing, separation between hunters and gatherers.

    Homo habilis, homo erectus and homo sapiens probably found incremental benefits from such division of labor. However, in the era of washing machines, dish washers, cars, and modern technology, the value of such division of labor has declined.

    While heels, the color pink, and several other concepts we associate with femininity today were once associated with masculinity. Gender, as we often refer to it, is a social construct meant to serve a social purpose. It helps identify a mate.

    There is also a gender, a part of your identity, which is not necessarily binary. It is only part of your identity, not whole. Everyone has it. And one part of growing up is finding out whether your internal gender identity fits closer to the masculine or the feminine or neither social gender.

  7. Hi
    I am a student doing an investigation on transsexualism and gender identities. I have been doing a lot of research into the reasons a person feels the need to change their gender identity and have read that it is “because one feels they were born into the wrong body”. However, i would like a more personal response as i want to know the feelings and emotions that one goes through when going through this change.I have also been told that there is a biological difference in the white matter in the brain between a transsexual and a male or female, is this true? Any information would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Chloe 🙂

      Could you please be a bit more specific about what you want? Are you asking Mind Hacks or the people who have commented (or lurked) or all of us?

      Also, I think it is safe to say the such people as you are interested in studying are not wanting to “change their gender identity” – we already know and are comfortable with our gender identity. What we (transsexuals) are interested in changing is aspects of our bodies to make our sex more congruent with our gender. Depending on where we already are along the sex and gender continua and our particular life-circumstances ,we may take greater or lesser transitionary steps.

      To clarify my comment above, I am a male-to-female transsexual who has chosen to remain in male form out of love for my wife and my marriage vows to her and God.

      As a female soul, clothed in the form of a male, transition to female-form and identity was my first choice, but I have accepted God’s challenge to live content in this blended-form. My task now is to remain committed to this challenge, accepting it as a gift, learning to express my femininity in the context of a male body: I want this to be a winsome and comely expression, unique to me, with the force of feminine beauty, grace and sensibility, yet not unbecoming of the male form, nor denying the masculine parts of my soul. God has promised to make me beautiful, graceful and congruent, certainly in eternity, but also (I believe) here in my life on earth as well.

      For me this means that I live openly transgendered, expressing myself on the feminine-side of androgynous. I am naturally graceful (like a dancer) in my movements and mannerisms, and I am gentle and soft-spoken. I typically cross-dress, but I’m never in “drag” – I don’t attempt to pass as a woman, only as myself. You would often see me in capris with a fitted shirt or blouse, sandals, very long hair in a French plait or in a bun with hair sticks, pearl stud earrings, female glasses a bracelet or anklet or necklace. My breasts are already at stage2 to 3 on the Tanner scale due to my hormonal makeup from puberty on. All of this is qualitatively and noticeably different than a “man expressing his feminine side;” I am not a ‘man’ at all, rather I am a female person “driving” a male body!

      Anyway, if you know of any TG/TS studies, I’ve been interested in some time in participating in one or more of them, especially fMRI ones.

      Take Care Chloe!

      1. thank you for your help brett.
        Im sorry for not being more specific but i was just looking for any general information to help me with my investigation.
        In regard to the ‘changing of gender identity’ i may have worded that wrong. I understand that a transexual’s gender identity is already formed and he or she, in a case where they want to have a sex change, (for the benefit of my investigation)just wants to live in the body or gender that they already know that they are. Im sorry for generalizing so much but i still only know the ‘facts’ and that is why i am searching for a more personal answer to my question.

        To be more specific as to what i am trying to prove in my investigation, which is actually an art piece, is that one’s physical sex does not determine their identity or who they are as a person. My topic is gender issues and basically what i am trying to prove is that just because one is born a certain sex and seen by the world as a certain sex, it does not necessarily mean that they are that gender on the ‘inside’.
        I am also trying to show in my piece the hardships one may go through in their journey to achieving their ‘true gender’ on the outside in order to be content.

        I apologize if i have offended anyone, or you brett, i am not always the best in articulating my concepts.

        Any more information or feelings on the subject, again would be greatly appreciated.

        Thanks Brett.

      2. With all due respect. You need to leave the religion bandwagon and its dogmas. Trust me you’ll regret not being true to yourself and just keep clinging on the promise of an eternity given by a Patriarchal and intolerant book that doesn’t even consider the fluidity in the sexes in our species.

  8. Oh Chloe! I’m *so sorry*!! I was’t offended by your comment or terminology, I was just trying offer a clarification. I didn’t intend to sound defensive! AND I was following my assertion up with something of how that relates to me.

    I would very much like to follow your investigation as this sort of research is intensly interesting to me. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have, if you think it might help your effort.

  9. Thanks again Brett 🙂
    I will let you know if i have anymore question and will let you know how my investigation progresses.
    You have been a great help.

  10. I think it is true that their are differentices in brain structure. But you live in the states and
    People have far to much fun abusing people who are different. Nothing well be done.

  11. Goodness, I just stumbled on this article and conversation again after some years. I was “Brett” above and I am now Brettany and have been for some years. It’s interesting to see how I have changed. I am still deeply spiritual, and see God as a partner in my gender affirmation, my transition.

    I never tried to convince people I am a woman, but with greater fidelity and integrity, I became myself: a woman – it’s been an inside-out process.

    Over the last six years I have gradually and gently moved through androgyny to where I am today. People who watched me change through the years decided “she must be a woman,” and when I recognized this, I relaxed into my identity and affirmed it by changing my name and gender marker.

    Back in 2011 when I wrote my comments above, I had not yet started hormone therapy – about a year later, I was desperate for them and briefly self medicated – female hormones are so blessedly egosyntonic for me, and my body has proved to be especially sensitive to them (and relatively insensitive to male hormones). Six months after my brief self medication, I started my medical transition under a doctors’ care. I am now approaching four years of HRT and my secondary sex characteristics are such that I am easily recognized as female, and with my gender confirming surgery this spring, I will always be on exogenous hormones. (My adrenals do not even produce androgen precursers.)

    I don’t remember when I recognized the connection, bit I am a DES child – my mother exposed me to diethylstilbestrol when Ai was gestating. Besides her admission, I have numerous indicators in my body. My female 2D4D finger ratio indicates the presence of estrogen instead of testosterone at the time of my development where my brain would ordinarily have been re-wired into the male pattern. But that apparently did not happen. I think and feel largely as other women describe the ways they think and feel, and my sexuality is as other women describe theirs. When I was a child, I only knew I wasn’t a boy, now I understand myself to have always been a female person who had to experience life as a “boy.” I seem to occupy the blurry boundary between transsexual and intersex.

    Now I describe myself this way:

    I am a transgender woman, and for me this means that parts of my body are male, parts are female and the rest of my body is in between the sexes. Who I am as a person, my gender identity, is as it always has been: essentially female. Once I lived as a special sort of man, and now by God’s grace I live as a special sort of woman. By “special sort of man” I mean that I have always been a female person, but I had to “drive” my (arguably) male body in (seemingly) masculine ways in order to survive as a child and “get by” as an adult. Now I am still a female person, but I drive my body in and into ways that are typical of other women, and I call myself a “special sort of woman” because I have *become* along a different path than my natal sisters due to my biology and history.

    Most female people become women through their girlhood and adolescence. THIS female person has become through her transsexuality and transition.

    And now, everything I do, I do as the woman I am.

    Blessings & Joy!!


    1. Oh!! Also, I remain married to my spouse of nearly 26 years. It has been a difficult challenge, moving from husband and wife to spouse and spouse: two women married together. We remain committed and sexually active and our “other” sort of relationship has become our new normal. People look on with amazement see how we are managing our “impossibilities,” and this encourages them to work on theirs.

      We are *so blessed*!!

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