Most studies on how brain functions differ between men and women have focused on psychological performance. A new study shows that men and women had different responses in the right front of the insular cortex.
The right front of the insular cortex is the part of the brain that is integral to blood pressure control, self-awareness and the experience of emotions. The insular cortex has five main parts, each serving a different role. These parts are called gyri. As earlier studies of the gyri were mostly done in men or male animals, researchers at the UCLA School of Nursing did not expect to find strong differences between men and women’s brains.
Paul Macey, the study’s lead author, notes that this is a critical area of the brain. It is involved with stress and keeping blood pressure and heart rate high. When researchers studied the front right gyrus, they found that the blood pressure response in women showed a lower response while men showed a greater right-sided activation in the area. This opposite pattern in men and women is surprising given the critical nature of this area.
Previous research during blood pressure trials measured brain activity with magnetic resonance imaging and the normal pattern was for the right-front insula area to activate more than other areas. What was considered normal for this study has now been turned on its head as the latest study shows that a lower right-sided activation is healthy response in women.
Further study will be required to determine the exact reason for this. Macey cites two possible reasons:
- It’s possible that this region is wired differently in women than it is in men.
- Women might already have activated this region because of psychological stress. When the physical test was done in the study, the women’s brain region could not activate any more.
In previous studies on men and women with obstructive sleep apnea, UCLA researchers have observed differences in blood brain flow and heart rate during blood pressure changes. This led to further research on healthy men and women in order to determine if cardiovascular responses in brain areas were different between the sexes.
Macey further believes that the differences found in the structure and function of the insula might contribute to different clinical symptoms for men and women in various medical disorders.
Further study on the various possibilities will be needed to gain a better understanding of normal development among all individuals (not just men and women), efficacy of drugs and susceptibility to disease. This could ultimately lead to a better understanding of how health issues for men and women differ, specifically in cardiovascular disease variations.
Research has been published in the journal Frontiers in Neurology.