Neurobiology and the Transgender BrainResearch Paper

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Biological Study of Transgender

The problem addressed in this paper is the issue of whether there is a biological basis for transgender persons to identify as the gender with which they associate themselves. The paper examines three recent studies that examine the brain patterns of transsexual persons before, during and after hormone therapy and compares them to control group brain patterns. The major findings of this paper are that transgender persons do have brain patterns that correspond more with the brain patterns of the gender with which they identify than with their "biological" gender. The term "biological" becomes problematic because these studies demonstrate that there is a sexual biology which is manifested most explicitly in the sex organs of the person but that there is also a neurobiology which shows via brain imaging that transgender persons have brain patters that do not correspond with their sexual biology of birth. Why the neurobiology does not match the sexual biology remains a question.

Biological Study of Transgender


The issue of transgender is currently a controversial one in Western society. In the U.S. there is debate about a bathroom bill in North Carolina, which criminalizes using the inappropriate bathroom according to biological gender. Following on the heels of this controversial bill, presidential hopeful Donald Trump announced that celebrity male-to-female transgender Caitlyn Jenner can use any bathroom in Trump Tower that she wants to use -- which she promptly did in public (Zaru, 2016). Thus, the issue of the nature of transgender persons, whether male-to-female or female-to-male, is one that is polarizing in society and which is being addressed by various proponents and opponents across the political and social and medical spectrum. Part of the reason for its controversy is that biological questions the issue raises are far from answered, though there are studies that have been performed that suggest there is a biological basis for transgender -- particularly studies that have been conducted using brain scans/images of transgender persons both before and after receiving hormone treatment and comparing them to the brain image patterns of homosexual males and females to see if there is any correlation between the brain patterns of the gender with which transgender persons identify and their own. This paper will analyze these studies to show what they reveal about the biological basis of the transgender phenomenon and why some researchers are suggesting that the biology viewed within the brain region does indicate that transgender persons identify as a gender other than the one biologically theirs from birth because of an interior biology not explicitly manifested in sex parts.

The Studies

The study by Rametti, Carrillo, Gomez-Gil, Jungque, Segovia, Gomez, and Guillamon (2011) reveals that there is "an inherent difference in the brain structure" of female-to-male transsexuals (p. 199). This study was performed by analyzing brain imaging scans using MRIs for identifying "gray and white matter regions of the brain" which are assessed as "sexually dimorphic" (p. 199). The purpose of the study by Rametti et al. (2011) was to discover whether female-to-male transsexuals showed similar biological patterns with respect to white matter in the brain to the gender with which they identified (i.e., with males) or if their white matter patterns were typical for females. The results of the study showed that the white matter regions of untreated female-to-male transsexuals (transsexuals who had not yet received hormone treatment) was more in line with males than with females, indicating that there was correlation between female transsexuals who identified as males and the white matter region of males and female-to-male transsexuals.

The study by Rametti et al. (2011) was conducted by utilizing diffusion tensor imaging in 18 female-to-male transsexuals and 24 male and 19 female heterosexuals (as controls). Each of their brains were imaged with a 3 T Trio Tim Magneton. Tract-Based Spatial Statistics were then utilized to assess that "white matter fibers of the whole brain" after the researchers performed fractional anisotropy (Rametti et al., 2011, p. 199).

What the researchers found was that male heterosexuals in the control group had substantially more fractional anisotropy values than did their female counterparts in the control group. These values were located in the "medial and posterior parts of the right superior longitudinal fasciculus, the forceps minor, and the corticospinal tract" (Rametti et al., 2011, p. 199). The researchers then compared the white matter imaged in the female-to-male transsexual brains to the white matter imaged in the male and female participants of the control group.

The researchers found that the female-to-male transsexuals had higher fractional anisotropy value in the posterior portion of the right superior longitudinal fasciculus, the forceps minor and corticospinal tract than heterosexual women within the control group had. Measured against the heterosexual males in the control group, the female-to-male transsexuals were shown to have lower fractional anisotropy values only in the corticospinal tract. Thus, the female-to-male transsexuals were in between the heterosexual females and heterosexual males in terms of corticospinal tract fractional anisotropy values.

The study by Schoning, Engelien, Bauer et al. (2010) performed a similar analysis of the brain patterns of transgender persons both before and during hormone therapy. Their study focused on comparing transsexual patients undergoing therapy with men who did not have "gender identity disorder," (GID) though this term raises sociological questions about whether transgender should be identified or lumped into the same category as something called a "disorder." The issue in this study is that the researchers looked for difference in the neurobiological processes in the brain patterns of transsexual men and heterosexual men without a gender identity issue. The researchers hypothesized that they would find significant differences in the brain activity patterns of "untreated transsexual patients" (i.e., those who had not received hormone therapy) compared to those of "men without GID" (p. 1858).

The method employed by Schoning, Engelien, Bauer et al. (2010) was to conduct measurements of brain patterns on 11 male-to-female transsexuals before the application of hormone therapy was implemented. This allowed the researchers to see how the transgender male's brain pattern typified before hormone intervention. Then another group of 11 male-to-female transsexuals undergoing hormone therapy were brain-scanned. The results of these two groups were compared to men who had no gender identity issues. The scans were performed by utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging at 3-Tesla and analyzed via "a mental rotation paradigm with proven sexual dimorphism" and SPM5 (Schoning, Engelien, Bauer et al., 2010, p. 1858). What the research indicated was that the brain patterns in the transsexuals correlated with the brain patterns of a mental rotation task. This means that "the classical mental rotation network was activated in all three groups" but the activities themselves were not the same (Schoning, Engelien, Bauer et al., 2010, p. 1858). In the control group of men who had no gender identity issues, the left parietal cortex was substantially more active than in the two transsexual groups. In the two transsexual groups, on the other hand, there was substantially more activity in the temporo-occipital region (Schoning, Engelien, Bauer et al., 2010, p. 1858).

According to the researchers, these findings suggest that there are "a priori differences between men and transsexual patients" and that the main cause of these differences are "neurobiological processes or task-solving strategies" (Schoning, Engelien, Bauer et al., 2010, p. 1858). Moreover, these differences do not dissipate over time but remain constant even throughout the course of hormone therapy.

The conclusion of this study thus corroborates the conclusion of the preceding study, which indicates that there is a neurobiological difference in the transgender person that is not reflected in the sexual biology of the individual.

Finally, the study by HIlleke et al. (2006) shows that sex hormones do impact the biology of the brain and its brain/hypothalums volumes. The researchers studied the impact of hormone therapy on transsexuals and found that "gonadal hormones remain essential for maintaining aspects of sex-specific differences in the human brain" (Hillek et al., 2006, p. 107). This study suggests that how transgender persons view their gender and themselves is impacted by the presence of gonadal hormones which regulate brain activities. When viewed in conjunction with the study by Schoning et al. (2010), the findings indicate that transgender persons process information differently from individuals without a gender identity issue or who do not identify as a gender other than their biological gender.

Of course, the issue of biology is complicated by the suggestion that sexual biology and neurobiology can be on two different pages, so to speak, as the study by Schoning et al. (2010) indicates. Moreover, the study by Rametti et al. (2011) likewise raises the concept that transgender persons have a neurobiology that is not aligned with their sexual biology, which is what moves them to identify with the gender more emphatically active in their mind than in their sexual parts.


While these studies do not answer the question why there may be a split between the neurobiology and the sexual biology of transgender persons (in fact, the study by Hilleke et al., 2006, does… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Neurobiology And The Transgender Brain.  (2016, April 29).  Retrieved March 22, 2017, from

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"Neurobiology And The Transgender Brain."  29 April 2016.  Web.  22 March 2017. <>.

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"Neurobiology And The Transgender Brain."  April 29, 2016.  Accessed March 22, 2017.