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"The Neuroscience of Gender": June 17, 2013



Dr. Anke A. Ehrhardt, Vice Chair for Faculty Affairs at Columbia Psychiatry, chaired a panel discussion on “The Neuroscience of Gender” focused on the question of how sex hormones influence male and female behavior. The event was sponsored by the German Center for Research and Innovation with RWTH Aachen University.The German Center provides a platform for German science, research, innovation and research-based companies ( In 2011, the German Center featured University Professor Eric Kandel as one of two keynote speakers.

The panelists included leading neuroscience esteemed experts from Germany and the United States discussing the neural and hormonal basis of gender differences in behavior. Pictured above at left is Dr. Ehrhardt, an internationally known sex researcher and Director of Columbia’s Division of Gender, Sexuality and Health. At right is German Center Director Dr. Joann Halpern. The two panelists are at center: Dr. Bruce S. McEwen, who is Alfred E. Mirsky Professor and Head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University in New York and Dr. Ute Habel, who is Professor of Neuropsychological Gender Research with the University Clinic for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics at RWTH Aachen University.


For more on this event, click here.




Gender differences in the brain and in behavior are influenced by sex hormones and gender stereotypes. According to Dr. McEwen, the entire brain is a target of sex and stress hormones. Sex hormones affect many regions and functions of the brain including memory, motor coordination, pain sensitivity, and mood. They also display neuroprotective effects that can reduce negative neuronal consequences of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Suppressing sex hormone production through hormone therapy can have negative results and lead, among other consequences, to an increased risk of stroke, as well as mood dysregulations, which can possibly result in a full-blown depression. “There are potential trade-offs in the use of these pharmacologic agents,” said Dr. McEwen, “biologists and patients have to be aware of them and their potential dangers.”

Other structural gender differences of the brain, for instance, how male and female brains respond to stress are also dependent on the presence of estrogen and testosterone. While stress in male brains causes dendrites to shrink, the opposite happens in female brains where, due to the presence of estrogens and an increased neuronal communication with the amygdala, the same stress causes dendrites to expand. Consequently, sex hormones lead to gender-specific strategies when dealing with social and physical environments.

Dr. Habel, whose research focuses on neuropsychological factors of gender differences in healthy and psychiatric patients, addressed possible functional gender differences in the brain. According to her, men and women often display the same emotional and behavioral reactions, despite demonstrating clear differences in cerebral activity. One possible interpretation of this fact, said Dr. Habel, is that men and women use different processing strategies to reach the same conclusion.


Further functional contributions to gender differences in cognitive abilities are sociologically-induced gender stereotypes. “Stereotypes have an extremely powerful influence on brain and behavior,” said Habel. Suggesting that one gender is better at performing a task than the other can influence the subject’s performance. For this reason, conforming to a certain negative gender stereotype often results in a dramatic drop of the performance. This effect can be observed, in particular, in women.

“We suspect that there are many other sex differences in the brain that remain to be discovered,” said McEwen.The bottom line is that males and females do many of the same things equally well, but use different strategies to reach these points. Although the end point is the same, the consequences for the individual can vary significantly. One example is the gender-specific reactions during stress, which lead to an increased level of anxiety in women, in contrast to a higher substance abuse and antisocial behavior in men.

To watch the video recording of the event, click here; to listen to the podcast, here