Women’s brains are significantly more active in many more regions than men’s, according to new research.
The findings could help explain why women are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, insomnia and eating disorders.
The study by scientists from Amen Clinics in California is the biggest brain imaging survey to date. It compared over 46,000 brain scans from nine clinics and analyzed the differences between male and female brains.
Understanding these differences is important, the researchers say, because it helps to shed more light on how brain disorders affect men and women differently.
For example, women are more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, depression and anxiety disorders, while men have higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct-related disorders.
The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found that women’s brains were significantly more active in many more areas than men’s, especially in the prefrontal cortex which is involved in focus and impulse control and the limbic or emotional areas of the brain responsible for mood and anxiety.
However, the visual and coordination centers of the brain were more active in men.
Lead author Daniel G. Amen, a psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, said: “This is a very important study to help understand gender-based brain differences.
“The quantifiable differences we identified between men and women are important for understanding gender-based risk for brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”
The researchers used brain scans from 119 healthy volunteers and 26,683 patients with a range of psychiatric conditions such as brain trauma, bipolar, mood disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, and ADHD.
The study subjects rested or performed cognitive tasks while researchers measured blood flow in their brains using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT).
The researchers analyzed a total of 128 brain regions at baseline (at the beginning of the study) and during a concentration task.
They found that women had greater blood flow in the prefrontal cortex compared to men, which may help to explain why women tend to be stronger in the areas of empathy, intuition, collaboration, self-control and showing appropriate concern.
It also revealed increased blood flow in limbic areas of the brains of women, which may also partially explain why women are more prone to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and eating disorders.
However, the human brain - regardless of gender - is changeable and notoriously difficult to understand.
As Gina Rippon, Professor of Cognitive Imaging at Ashton University, wrote last year:
"The notion that our brains are plastic or malleable and, crucially, remain so throughout our lives is one of the key breakthroughs of the last 40 years in our understanding of the brain.
Different short- and long-term experiences will change the brain’s structure. It has also been shown that social attitudes and expectations such as stereotypes can change how your brain processes information.
Supposedly brain-based differences in behavioural characteristics and cognitive skills change across time, place and culture due to the different external factors experienced, such as access to education, financial independence, even diet."