Traumatic events may affect the brains of boys and girls in a different way, a new study finds. In the study, compared with boys from the control group, the anterior circular sulcus was larger in volume and surface area in the traumatized boys. But the volume and surface area of the same brain region was smaller in traumatized girls, compared with control girls.
The region is associated with emotional awareness and empathy, the researchers mentioned. The scientists said they were surprised to see that “the boys and girls were so clearly on different ends of the spectrum,” said Megan Klabunde, the lead author of the study and a psychologist and neuroscience researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine.
In the study, the researchers scanned the brains of 59 children ages 9 to 17, using a type of scan called structural magnetic resonance imaging (sMRI). Of the participants, there were 30 participants (14 girls and 16 boys) that had symptoms of trauma, such as mood changes, and mentally reliving their traumatic events. The remaining 29 participants had not experienced trauma (15 girls and 14 boys) and were used as the control group.
Once the MRI scans were analyzed, the researchers compared the size of the anterior circular sulcus, located within a brain region called the insula, which plays a role in people’s emotions, awareness, and empathy. 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.
“The insula appears to play a main 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.” 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.”
Future studies may shed some light on how trauma affects other brain structures related to empathy, and whether these effects also show gender differences, the researchers said.
Additionally, further research may also help scientists determine whether these physical differences in the brain, in turn, lead to behavioral differences between boys and girls, the scientists said. Such research could help psychiatrists develop gender-specific treatments for boys and girls who have suffered traumatic events, the researchers said.