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Are the brains of males different from those of females? Psychologists produce a podcast on brain research and mental health

Women are more often diagnosed with depression, whereas ADHD is much more frequently detected in men. And there are other more striking differences. What role does the brain play in mental health and what is the influence of the environment? For answers to these questions, listen to the ‘(Un)gendered brains’ podcast by psychologists Lara Wierenga and Marieke Bos.

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In the first episode of this four-part podcast series, neuroscientist Lara Wierenga and development psychologist Marieke Bos dissect some popular simplistic claims about sex differences in the brain. Men’s brains, for example, may on average be 11% larger, but that does not mean that men are more intelligent. Another well-known belief is that men are more spatially aware, but this difference largely disappears if women are given appropriate training. Scientific findings about differences in the brain are often exaggerated, according to Bos and Wierenga. This leads to harmful stereotypes that can have a reinforcing effect. And not only that, there are also brain differences within the sexes.

Autism and ADHD

In the English-language podcast, the psychologists point out striking differences in diagnoses of mental health problems and neurodiversity. Men are much more often diagnosed with autism or ADHD, whereas the opposite is true of depression: far fewer men are diagnosed with depression. Why is that? Possibly because depression is less likely to be thought of in men, which makes it harder for them to find access to the appropriate care, Wierenga said. This makes it harder for them to find their way to the right treatment. This is worrisome; men worldwide end their lives significantly more often than women. 

Hormones and environment play a role

Wierenga and Bos advocate a multidisciplinary approach for studies of gender and gender differences, including studies of the brain, the effects of genetics, the role of hormones and the influence of the social and cultural environment. In the podcast they reflect on their own research and they speak with scientists, clinicians and policy makers on barriers and a possible breakthrough. Wierenga: ‘If we have a fuller understanding of the role of sex and gender in mental disorders, we will be better able to diagnose and treat individuals.’ Bos adds: ‘We want to raise awareness, but at the same time there is still a lot that is unknown because sex and gender differences have been ignored for such a long time. So a great deal of research is still needed.' Opening up publications through Open Science can make an important contribution to this field of research, both argue.

Podcast for professionals, researchers and non-experts

The podcast was made for interested for lay people as well as for professionals working in mental healthcare. Wierenga and Bos also want to inspire other scientists to incorporate sex and gender in their research. Wierenga: ‘Understanding all the factors that contribute to neurodiversity is an important step in developing precision medicine and a treatment that takes greater account of individual differences in genes, environment and lifestyle.’ 

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