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EXPERT REACTION: Can being transgender be explained by differences in brain function?

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Gender dysphoria - a state of extreme distress caused by feelings that a person's true gender does not match up with the one assigned at birth - could be caused by changes in the network activity of a person's brain, rather than incorrect brain sex, according to a US author. A major theory of distress in gender dysphoria was based on the idea that these individuals have brain's with a size and shape more closely matching the opposite sex to their gender at birth. However the authors of this study say that it may be a result of functional differences in the distress, social behaviour, and body-ownership networks of the brain - rather than differences in the size and shape of the anatomy. The author believes that this theory could offer ways to treat the distress of gender dysphoria patients "without relying on invasive and irreversible gender reassignment surgery".

Journal/conference: eNeuro

DOI: 10.1523/ENEURO.0183-19.2019

Organisation/s: University of Michigan, USA

Funder: This work was funded in part by NIH Big Data to Knowledge mentored training grant K01-ES026839.

Media Release

From: Society for Neuroscience

The Neurobiological Basis of Gender Dysphoria
Feelings of distress could be linked to changes in network activity

A new theory of gender dysphoria argues the symptoms of the condition are due to changes in network activity, rather than incorrect brain sex, according to work recently published in eNeuro.

Gender dysphoria is a state of extreme distress caused by the feeling that a person's true gender does not match the gender assigned at birth. The leading theory of the mechanism behind gender dysphoria attributes the condition to people possessing brains regions with the size and shape of the opposite sex, instead of their biological sex. However, recent brain imaging studies don’t support that theory.

Stephen Gliske reviewed previous research and has developed a new multisense theory of gender dysphoria focused on function of brain regions, rather than only size and shape. He proposes gender dysphoria is caused by altered activity in three networks – the distress, social behavior, and body-ownership networks – affecting distress and one’s sense of their own gender. Previous studies support the premise that activity changes in these networks are associated with anatomical changes and feelings of gender dysphoria.

If supported by further research, this theory could offer ways to treat the distress of gender dysphoria patients without relying on invasive and irreversible gender reassignment surgery.

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Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Dr Damien Riggs is an Associate Professor in social work, and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow

A new paper by Gliske starts from the assumption that gender can be located in the brain, despite ample psychological research demonstrating that gender is an affective and cultural phenomenon. Drawing on research based on small sample sizes and focusing exclusively on ‘gender dysphoria’, the paper imputes meaning to the lives of transgender people that is likely to be viewed by many as problematic.

 It is problematic as it treats gender dysphoria as a pathology to be fixed, despite evidence demonstrating that dysphoria is best addressed via affirming treatment. It is problematic as it treats gender dysphoria as synonymous with being transgender, when in fact not all people experience dysphoria. And it is problematic as it treats gender diversity itself as a problem, rather than attitudes towards transgender people as being the problem.

In sum, the claims presented by Gliske take a clinical diagnosis (‘gender dysphoria’) as a rationale for interpreting the lives of transgender people. This is in direct contradiction to the histories of the diagnosis itself, and to the lives of transgender people who, there is no reason to believe, come to understand their gender in any way different than do any group of people.

Last updated: 02 Dec 2019 3:41pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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