The brain activity of transgender adolescents more closely resembles the typical activation patterns of their desired gender, according to a new Belgian study.
The findings suggest that differences in brain function may occur quite early in life and that brain imaging may be a useful tool for earlier identification of transgenderism in adolescents.
Transgenderism is identifying with a gender different from one’s assigned biological sex, while gender dysphoria (GD) is the distress experienced by transgender people, and may be begin at a very young age.
Since gender identity is such a critical part of a person’s overall psychological health, those with unaddressed gender dysphoria can go on to develop severe mental health issues. Current strategies for treating GD in younger people involve psychotherapy, or delaying puberty with hormones, so that permanent decisions on transgender therapy can be made at an older age.
Research shows that genetics and hormones contribute to sex differences in brain development and function. And while these processes do lead to more male- or female-typical traits, they are not well-established. In addition, little is known about when in early life or to what extent the gender-typical characteristics of transgender people become established.
Earlier diagnosis or better understanding of transgenderism could help improve the quality of life for young transgender people, and also help their families make more informed decisions regarding treatment.
For the 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, in the Netherlands, analyzed sex differences in the brain activation patterns of transgender adolescents.
The study, which included both boys and girls with gender dysphoria, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure brain activation patterns in response to a pheromone known to produce gender-specific brain activity.
The findings reveal that 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. Furthermore, GD girls exhibited a male-typical brain activation pattern while working on a visual/spatial memory task.
Finally, the researchers detected some brain structural changes that were also more similar, but not identical, to those typical of the desired gender of GD boys and girls.
“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,” said Bakker.
Bakker is now studying the role that hormones play during puberty on brain development and transgender differences, to help improve future diagnosis and therapy for GD adolescents.
“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,” said Bakker.
The research was recently presented in Barcelona at the European Society of Endocrinology annual meeting, ECE 2018.