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People’s brains mirror the gender they identify with—not their biological sex, a study finds


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Photo: Stocksy/Juan Moyano

The United States does not have a great track record in treating the LGBTQ population justly. As a result, transgender youth suffer from high suicide rates (30 percent have reported at least one suicide attempt) and face a specific type of violence and discrimination that leads to homelessness and poverty. In fact, LGBTQ youth make up an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States. As the ongoing Supreme Court case of Gavin Grimm points out, much of this is because of a belief that gender is a strict binary with no flexibility. But a recent study negates that understanding by showing that brain activity in transgender adolescents most closely resembles that of the gender with which they identify.

The MRI scans of 160 adolescents with gender dysphoria showed that their brain activity mirrored the gender they identified with, not the biological one they were born into.

For the study—published in the journal Endocrine Abstracts and presented at the the European Society of Endocrinology annual meeting in Barcelona on May 22—researchers at the Vu University Medical Center in the Netherlands looked at the MRI scans of 160 adolescents with gender dysphoria and found that their brain activity mirrored the gender they identified with, not the biological one they were born into.

This study is important on many levels: First, earlier acknowledgement of transgenderism could help to improve the overall well-being of young people with gender dysphoria and help their families to make more informed decisions on physical treatment.

“For instance, in the Netherlands, youngsters are being treated with puberty inhibitors at 12 years of age to prevent the development of secondary sex characteristics which are difficult or even impossible to reverse (like the lowering of the voice in boys) and then at 16 years of age, they can start with cross-sex hormones. It has been shown that these youngsters are doing relatively well and are well accepted by their peers,” lead study author Julie Bakker, PhD, a neuroendocrinology expert at the University of Liege, told Newsweek.

Bakker added that studying how sex hormones influence the brain is also vital because sex differences play a major role in determining the likelihood of neurological diseases: For example, two-thirds of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are women.

Although the sample size for this study was pretty small, it’s still shows evidence that the gender that people identify with is far more important than the one they were born into. Hopefully that understanding will begin to permeate societal views so we can move toward a better quality of life for the transgender population.

Read about one woman’s story of her gender identity transition and about the woman who became a prominent advocate for transgender civil rights.

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