Apr. 22, 1999 Toronto (April 20, 1999) -- Men and women's brains are distinctly different. While men have more neurons in the cerebral cortex, the brain's outer layer, women have more neuropil, which contains the processes allowing cell communication. Research showing these gender-specific differences was presented during the American Academy of Neurology 51st Annual Meeting April 17 -- 24, 1999, in Toronto.
"The cerebral cortex is responsible for voluntary movements, perception of sensory input and of highly complex functions such as memory, learning, reasoning and language," said Gabrielle de Courten-Myers, MD, study author and associate professor of neuropathology at the University of Cincinnati. "Males possess more tightly packed and more numerous nerve cells (neurons) than females. Neurons send and receive electrical signals that influence many functions of the body and create thoughts and feelings. Females tend to have more neuropil, the fibular tissue that fills the space between nerve cell bodies and contains mainly nerve cell processes (synapses, dendrites and axons) that enable neurons to communicate with numerous other nerve cells."
This research may explain previous findings that women are more prone to dementing illnesses than are men. Although a man and woman may lose the same number of neurons due to a disease, such as dementia, the woman's functional loss may be greater because the cells lost are more densely connected with other neurons. Added de Courten-Myers, "Conversely, in males, the 'functional reserve' may be greater as a larger number of nerve cells are present, which could prevent some of the functional losses."
Although these gender-specific variations cause tangible differences in how the brain functions, one type is not "better" or "worse" than the other. Said de Courten-Myers, "It seems reasonable to assume that specific functions may benefit from the presence of more cells while others may be enhanced by a larger number of connections between them. A better understanding of these issues may potentially affect a wide spectrum of human activities such as health care, psychology and teaching."
The researchers measured the cortex thickness and counted nerve cells from various sites within the healthy brains of 17 deceased subjects (10 males and seven females).
"The recognition of gender-specific ways of thinking and feeling -- rendered more credible given these established differences -- could prove beneficial in enhancing interpersonal relationships." Said de Courten-Myers, "However, the interpretation of the data also has the potential for abuse and harm if either gender would seek to construct evidence for superiority of the male or female brain from these findings."
The American Academy of Neurology, an association of more than 15,000 neurologists and neuroscience professionals, is dedicated to improving patient care through education and research.
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