Issue 38, May 2013
bulletWired Differently: Gender Specifics in the Brain
bulletThe Neuroscience of Gender: Interview with Prof. Dr. Ute Habel
bulletStudy Shows: Men Can't Read Women's Emotions
bulletMath Talent, Task Performance, and Gender
bulletGender, Age, and Memory
bulletInnovation: mini-NIRS for Brain Activity Measurement
article1Wired Differently: Gender Specifics in the Brain
Research studies have documented differences in the brains of males and females. According to some researchers, these findings suggest that the gender differences in the brain are the basis for gender-specific cognitive abilities and behaviors.

Male brains are, on average, 8 to 10 per cent larger than female brains. However, some regions of the female brain, such as those involved in emotional responses, organization, learning from mistakes and language representation are, on average, larger than those of their male counterparts. In addition, the pace of development of certain brain areas in males and females is different. For example, the regions associated with judging the consequences of behavior mature more slowly in boys. Some researchers understand these findings as indicators of lowered impulsiveness, better language skills, stronger empathy, and a decreased tendency towards reckless behavior in women. While self-control and concern for outcomes may result in better longevity for females, these traits may also make them more inclined to anxiety and depression.

The parts of the brain involved in numerical brain function are larger, on average, in males, which may explain why men often have stronger mathematical skills. Compared to males, areas of the female brain associated with learning are more active, which may account for their stronger memorization abilities. In contrast, men show greater activity in the areas associated with visuospatial memory. Learning under stress appears to be sexually dimorphic, with male brains displaying higher functionality that facilitates learning.

Our upcoming event "The Neuroscience of Gender" on June 17, 2013, will address these differences. Dr. Ute Habel from RWTH Aachen University, with whom we conducted the GCRI interview below, will be one of the event speakers. Please visit our website for further information.

Prof. Dr. Ute Habel
article2The Neuroscience of Gender: Interview with Prof. Dr. Ute Habel

In this GCRI interview, Ute Habel explains the extent to which gender influences the neurobiology of emotions and how female and male brains age differently. She also discusses why depression and anxiety are more prevalent in women than in men and which psychotherapeutic inventions she would like to investigate further. Read the interview, here.
Ute Habel is a leading psychologist and charted psychotherapist at the Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics at the University Hospital Aachen. Since 2009, she has held a full professorship for neuropsychological gender studies at the RWTH Aachen University and is currently the RWTH Rector's Delegate for North America. Since 2013, she has also been a member of the university's strategy board. She studied psychology in Trier and Tübingen, Germany, and received her Ph.D. in Tübingen in 1998. In 2005, she completed her habilitation (postdoctoral lecture qualification) in Vienna, Austria. She has been at RWTH since 2007, serving as the scientific coordinator of the International Research Training Group "Brain-behavior relationship of emotions and social cognition in schizophrenia and autism" funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Her research focuses on neurobiological correlates of emotion and cognition, as well as gender differences in healthy individuals and psychiatric patients. She also investigates the effects of psychotherapeutic interventions and hormonal influences on behavior and cerebral activation.

On June 17, 2013, Ute Habel will speak at "The Neuroscience of Gender" event at the GCRI. For more information, click here.

Neuroscience of Gender
article3Study Shows: Men Can't Read Women's Emotions

The cliché that men don't understand women is now supported by a study that suggests men struggle to read women's emotions by looking at their eyes.

The research, which was led by Boris Schiffer of the LWL-University Hospital in Bochum, Germany, showed that it was difficult for men to read women's emotions from images of their eyes compared with those of men. It also took men longer to interpret women's emotions when viewing these images.

Schiffer and his colleagues put 22 men, ages 21 to 52, with an average age of 36, in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which uses blood as a measure of brain activity. After looking at 36 pairs of eyes, half from men and half from women, the participants were asked to decide which of two words (e.g. distrustful or terrified) best described the emotions of the person whose eyes were presented.
The study showed that men actually had twice as many problems recognizing emotions from female as compared to male eyes, and that these problems were particularly associated with a lack of activation in limbic regions of the brain.

The fMRI also recorded more intense activation in the amygdala, a part of the brain that helps process emotions, when the men looked at the eyes of other men.
The reason for this behavior is still unclear. Perhaps evolutionary imperatives made it more important for men to understand other men than to understand women. To read the paper, click here.

Math & Gender
article4Math Talent, Task Performance, and Gender

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a technique that permits scientists to determine which areas of the brain increase in activity when subjects are performing specific tasks.

Christian Hoppe and collaborators from the Department of Epileptology at the University of Bonn Medical Center examined several independent factors: math talent, gender, and task performance on neural correlates of mental rotation in same-aged adolescents.

Out of the study's 34 participants, mathematically gifted subjects performed better than controls on the mental rotation task, as did males compared to females. The fMRI also identified activation of the inferior parietal lobule, a portion of the cerebral cortex, as a common effect of the three factors. However, statistical analysis (multiple linear regression) revealed that experimental task performance was the only predictor of inferior parietal lobule activation. Thus, activation of this portion of the cerebral cortex is a positive correlate to mental rotation tasks, irrespective of gender and mathematical giftedness. To read the paper, click here.

article5Gender, Age, and Memory

Memories of specific events, experiences, and situations are termed "episodic memories," whereas "working memory" involves the temporary storage and manipulation of information used in higher order cognitive tasks.

Franz Pauls and his colleagues at the Center of Clinical Psychology and Rehabilitation, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany, addressed the question of gender and age differences in visual and auditory episodic and working memory tasks.

Women outperformed men on the auditory memory tasks, while males outperformed females on the visual memory tasks. The gender differences varied as a function of age. There was a decline in visual episodic and working memory with increasing age. The researchers suggest that the better performance by women on the auditory memory tasks may be related to better verbal ability and the advantage of the males on the visual memory tasks is related to their better visuospatial ability. To read the paper, click here.

mini-NIRS image
article6Innovation: mini-NIRS for Brain Activity Measurement

Modern imaging technologies that allow glimpses into the brain's activity require bulky nuclear magnetic resonance scanners and are thus limited to laboratory use.
Researchers from the Bernstein Focus Neurotechnology Berlin and the Berlin-based company NIRx are developing an alternative, portable method of near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), the mini-NIRS.

As in EEG, NIRS technology assesses the brain from the skull's surface. But while EEG directly measures voltage changes caused by neuronal activity, NIRS provides clues about the brain's metabolism by measuring transmitted light which is related to neuronal activity. Depending on the amount of blood and oxygen level in the brain, a detector measures how much of the infrared-sourced light has passed through the brain's tissue.
While functional magnetic resonance imaging also measures blood oxygenation, NIRS is smaller and less expensive to use, without any interferences caused by electromagnetic fields or muscle contractions.
To test the mini-NIRS' real life application, volunteers were equipped with a wearable cap that integrates 20 miniaturized light detectors and emitters. The light is produced and measured directly on the skull. The electronics for the data registration, which consist of a thick paperback-sized interface and a laptop, fit into a backpack wire-connected to the cap. Even under distractive conditions, the participants could reliably extract motor control signals for the hand movement from the brain's contralateral motor center. "In some subjects, we could even relate individual hand movements to the NIRS signals," said Christoph Schmitz, CEO of NIRx and head of the study. The use of mini-NIRS could enhance brain-computer interfaces, with which, for instance, enable paralyzed patients to control technical devices. For more information, click here.

Image: Activation of motor cortex measured with mini-NIRS in downtown Berlin.
© NIRx