Research carried out at Stanford University School of Medicine in California discovers intriguing differences between male and female brains following traumatic stress. The findings might help design sex-specific trauma interventions.

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Researchers investigate the gender differences in traumatized brains.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by a particularly frightening, stressful, or distressing event.

Symptoms include intrusive memories, reliving the traumatic event, negative emotions about one’s self, difficulty maintaining relationships, and overwhelming feelings of guilt.

Currently, PTSD affects an estimated 24.4 million Americans; that is around 8 percent of the population.

The exact mechanisms behind PTSD remain unknown; similarly, the reasons why some people who experience trauma go on to develop PTSD while others do not are poorly understood.

There are many questions still to be answered.

Earlier research has shown that girls who experience trauma are more likely to go on to develop PTSD than boys. Why this should be the case is another question awaiting an answer.

A team of researchers recently set out to investigate potential reasons behind this gender difference in more detail. Their results were published earlier this week in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

To gather an understanding of the brain changes that take place in PTSD, researchers took MRI scans of 59 participants aged 9-17.

Of the participants, 30 had trauma symptoms (14 girls and 16 boys); five of these individuals had experienced one period of trauma, while the others had experienced two or more episodes or had experienced chronic trauma. The remaining 29 participants had not experienced trauma (15 girls and 14 boys) and were used as the control group.

The traumatized individuals and the controls were all of similar ages and IQs.

Once the MRI scans were analyzed, there were no differences found between the girl’s and boy’s brains in the control group. However, in the trauma group, significant differences were uncovered.

These striking gender differences were found in a region of the insula – a deep fold in the brain thought to be important in a range of processes, including homeostasis and emotion. The particular section of the insula that showed the most pronounced differences is known as the anterior circular sulcus.

When compared with boys from the control group, the anterior circular sulcus was larger in volume and surface area in the traumatized boys. Conversely, the volume and surface area of the same brain region was smaller in traumatized girls, compared with control girls.

These findings build on previous work that has found subtle changes in the insula of people with PTSD.

The insula appears to play a key role in the development of PTSD. The difference we saw between the brains of boys and girls who have experienced psychological trauma is important because it may help explain differences in trauma symptoms between sexes.”

Senior author Dr. Victor Carrion, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford

Megan Klabunde, the study’s lead author, believes that the results demonstrate the importance of a gender-specific approach to treating PTSD. She says that if brain changes are different in the sexes, “it is possible that boys and girls could exhibit different trauma symptoms and that they might benefit from different approaches to treatment.”

As we grow from childhood into teenage years and beyond, the insula tends to decrease in volume. Therefore, the current findings imply that traumatic events might contribute to an increased speed of cortical aging in female brains.

According to Klabunde: “There are some studies suggesting that high levels of stress could contribute to early puberty in girls.”

Although the study garnered significant results and demonstrated clear differences, the researchers want to expand their research. They hope to design longitudinal studies where traumatized individuals can be followed over a longer period of time to understand the changes in more detail.

Once a clearer picture has been established, gender-specific treatments can eventually be designed to improve the outlook for individuals of both sexes with PTSD.

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