Neuroscientists Find That Men And Women Respond Differently To Stress

Functional magnetic resonance imaging of men and women under stress showed neuroscientists how their brains differed in response to stressful situations. In men, increased blood flow to the left orbitofrontal cortex suggested activation of the “fight or flight” response. In women, stress activated the limbic system, which is associated with emotional responses.

There are many books and movies that highlight the psychological differences between men and women — Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, for example; but now, neurologists say they have brain images that prove male and female brains do work differently — at least under stress.

Same species, different genders … And now, a new high-tech scientific study reveals the differences between men and women may really start at the top. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used a high-tech imaging method to scan the brains of 16 men and 16 women. The subjects were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI.

“Using this state-of-the art-functional magnetic resonance imaging technique, we try to directly visualize what the human brain does during stress,” Jiongjiong Wang, Ph.D., a research assistant professor of radiology and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told Ivanhoe.

Researchers then purposely induced moderate performance stress by asking the men and women to count backward by 13, starting at 1,600. Researchers monitored the subject’s heart rate. They also measured the blood flow to the brain and checked for cortisol, a stress hormone.

When the scans were completed, neuroscientists consistently found differences between the men’s stressed-out brains and the women’s. Men responded with increased blood flow to the right prefrontal cortex, responsible for “fight or flight.” Women had increased blood flow to the limbic system, which is also associated with a more nurturing and friendly response.

Doctors say this information may someday lead to a screening process for mood disorders. “In the future, when physicians treat patients — especially depression, PTSD — they need to take this into account that really, gender matters,” Dr. Wang explains.

Other experts caution that hormones, genetics and environmental factors may influence these results, bringing to light yet another difference between men and women. Neuroscientists say the changes in the brain during stress response also lasted longer in women.

Editor’s Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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