Men and women have different ways of navigating, according to the latest study.
Previous research has shown that in specific spatial tasks, men perform better than women. But it is not clear what role sex hormones play versus cultural conditioning and other factors.
Carl Pintzka, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Neuroscience, and colleagues wanted to investigate whether there are any differences in brain activity when men and women orient themselves.
Using 3D goggles and a joystick, the participants had to orient themselves in a very large virtual maze while images of their brains were continuously recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Men solved 50% more navigational tasks
Before the scanning session, the 18 men and 18 women spent an hour learning the layout of the maze.
In the scanner, they had 30 seconds to complete each of the 45 navigation tasks, such as "find the yellow car" from different starting points.
The men solved 50% more of the tasks than the women.
The scans revealed that the men took shortcuts, oriented themselves more using cardinal directions and used a different part of the brain than the women, suggesting that women and men have different navigational strategies, with men using cardinal directions to a greater degree.
Pintzka concludes that "men's sense of direction was more effective. They quite simply got to their destination faster."
"If they're going to the Student Society building in Trondheim, for example, men usually go in the general direction where it's located. Women usually orient themselves along a route to get there, for example, 'go past the hairdresser and then up the street and turn right after the store'."
The study shows that using cardinal directions is more efficient because it is a more flexible strategy. The destination can be reached faster because the strategy depends less on where you start.
fMRI images of the brain showed that both men and women use large areas of the brain when they navigate. However, the men used the hippocampus more, whereas women used the frontal areas of the brain, illustrating the role played by the hippocampus in using cardinal directions.
In ancient times, says Pintzka, the fact that men were hunters and women were gatherers possibly caused their brains to evolve differently.
Previous studies have documented that women are better than men at finding objects locally. In simple terms, he says, "women are faster at finding things in the house, and men are faster at finding the house."
After testosterone, women use hippocampus in navigation
Step two was to give a different group of women some testosterone just before solving the maze puzzles.
This time, 42 women were divided into two groups, where 21 received a drop of placebo and 21 a drop of testosterone under the tongue.
The study was double-blinded so that neither Pintzka nor the women knew who got what.
The women did not solve more tasks, but their knowledge of the layout of the maze improved, and they used the hippocampus more for navigating, just as men do.
Losing one's sense of direction is an early sign of Alzheimer's disease.
Brain-related diseases often differ between men and women, either prevalence or in severity, suggesting that something is protecting or harming people of one gender, possible relating to sex hormones.
For example, twice as many women as men are affected by Alzheimer's disease, and one and a half times more men develop Parkinson's disease.
Pintzka hopes that a better awareness of how men and women use different brain areas and strategies to navigate might enhance our understanding of how Alzheimer's develops and lead to coping strategies for those already affected.
Medical News Today recently reported that genes involved in breast cancer, such as BRCA1, may be linked to Alzheimer's.