New Study Finds Transgender People's Brain Activity Matches Their Gender Identity

The neurological research confirms what the transgender community already knew.

A new study from researchers at the VU University Medical Center in the Netherlands shows what transgender people have been trying to tell the world for centuries — that they their brains are wired like the gender they identify as, not the gender assigned to them at birth. 

Using MRI scans, the researchers assessed the brain activity of 160 trans participants, including teenagers with gender dysphoria, the condition of feeling your emotional and psychological identity as male or female is opposite to your biological sex. Though the sample size was relatively small, Professor Julie Bakker, the study's lead author and an expert in neuroendocrinology at the University of Liege, noted that the overall number of studies examining "the origin of sex differences in the brain" has increased recently, as has the tendency of researchers to share their data.


The MRI results, which was presented at the European Society of Endocrinology's annual meeting in Barcelona, showed that participants who had been assigned male at birth, but felt they were supposed to live in a female body, had similar brain structure and neurological patterns to people assigned female at birth. They found similar results when assessing the brain activity of participants who had been assigned female at birth — their neurological structure and patterns mirrored people designated male at birth.

Bakker hopes the study can be a useful resource for not just teenagers, but young children experiencing gender dysphoria. "The earlier it [being transgender] is detected, the better the outcome of the treatment," she told Newsweek. "For instance, in the Netherlands, youngsters are being treated with puberty inhibitors at 12 years of age to prevent the development of secondary sex characteristics, which are difficult or even impossible to reverse (like the lowering of the voice in boys) and then at 16 years of age, they can start with cross-sex hormones." 

Dr. James Barrett, lead clinician at the Gender Identity Clinic and president of the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists, peer-reviewed the study. He agreed with the findings of the research, believing it provides solid evidence of a clear correlation between the transgender people's brains and their gender identity. "It used to be held long ago that all of this was psychological," he told Newsweek. "And over the years the pendulum of 'Is it nature or nurture?' has swung rather more toward the nature side of it, with increasing peculiar pieces of biological evidence suggesting there may be something innate in the pre-uterine environment." 

He likened being trans to being left-handed, noting that neither physical condition was based on choice. "Do people choose to be left-handed? You can make them write right-handed, and they can get quite good at it, but they'd be fundamentally left-handed," he explained. "Why people are left-handed is a complicated business — but in the end, left-handed they are." 

If this new data changes longstanding attitudes toward and understanding of the transgender community and gender identity still remains to be seen. Bakker added that, in the Netherlands, transgender youth "are doing relatively well and are well accepted by their peers." In the rest of the world, however, many transgender youth fight continuously just for tolerance, much less acceptance. But with scientific evidence to support their individual experience, trans kids, teens, and adults can use the study to better explain how they feel to family and friends as part of the coming out and transitioning process

(H/T: HuffPost

Cover image via Justin Starr Photography on Shutterstock


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