Women, Neuroscience, and Mental Health Disorders

Women, Neuroscience, and Mental Health Disorders

By Tehya Wachuta, Editor-in-Chief Originally published in Issue 9, Volume 33 of The University Register on March 12, 2021

Happy Women’s History Month! If you read my editorials regularly, you know I usually take this editorial column space to discuss neuroscience and mental health. In light of Women’s History Month, I thought it would be fun to talk about some facts regarding women, neuroscience, and mental health.

Before we begin, I’d like to address the myth that women’s brains are vastly different from men’s brains. There has been a problematic research endeavour to differentiate women’s brains from men’s brains in order to explain each gender’s behavioral differences and mental health differences. However, this has led to many myths about women’s brains, such as the idea that women have more white matter than men and are therefore able to multitask better, or that women’s language centers are more spread out throughout the brain, enabling them to communicate differently. These myths, although they may sound interesting at first glance, are unfounded. Instead of focusing on the differences between male and female brains (of which there seem to be few), it would be more useful to recognize that societal and cultural beliefs about women impact female mental health, causing a dramatic prevalence for certain mental health disorders in women. Rather than trying to find a biological reason for every difference between men and women’s behaviors, it would be more useful to recognize the societal prejudices heavily contributing to these behaviors.

That said, there is one neurobiological difference between men’s and women’s brains that I would like to discuss: the gendered size differences in the stria terminalis. Although I believe that it is more useful to examine the socio-cultural reasons behind differences in male and female mental health and behaviors, I do think that this difference is interesting and worth noting, particularly because it highlights a neurological commonality between all women, whether they are cisgender or transgender.

The stria terminalis is a collection of fibers on the underside of the thalamus. It is connected to the amygdala, which is associated with stress. In women’s brains, the stria terminalis tends to be narrower than in men. What I find so interesting about this trait is that it correlates with gender identity rather than biological sex. This means that both cisgender women and transgender women tend to have a more narrow stria terminalus. Researchers have found that the size of the stria terminalis does not change with medically heightened levels of estrogen, meaning that men given estrogen—for example, as treatment for testicular cancer—retain the original size of their stria terminalis. In other words, people who identify as male and are medically treated with estrogen have a “masculine” stria terminalis. This means that the size difference of the stria terminalis naturally correlates with one’s gender identity rather than biological sex or presence of female hormones.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many things that factor into the differences between male and female mental health. I wanted to mention the stria terminalis because it’s a fascinating example of gender identity in the brain, but I would also like to emphasize that socio-cultural factors influence women’s behavior, experiences, and mental health much more than their neurobiology does. Women have higher rates of depression than men. Women are twice as likely as men to develop Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is not because women’s brains are different from men’s brains. This is because women face different socio-cultural pressures than men, have different obstacles to overcome, and are treated differently by our society. Now, I say different rather than more or worse because generalizing the experiences of any group of people can be just as problematic as the adverse experiences themselves, and because, as a woman, I cannot accurately speak to the hardships men endure in our society. But I do believe that it is important to recognize that these differences in the way we treat men and women are causing significantly disproportionate rates of mental health disorders. Instead of focusing on our differences, it would be much more helpful to work to build an environment in which we can all exist equally.

Image on top courtesy of Visions and Voices