Field of Science

MRI study on transsexual brains

NewScientist reported today on a study (slated for publication next month) suggesting that transsexuals can be identified early in life by white matter patterns in parts of the brain. Brain MRI scans of untreated (I assume this means hormone therapy, although they never quite say) female-to-male transsexual (FtM) individuals match cis-male brains in certain key regions more than cis-female brains. A previous study by the same group reported that the same regions of the brain in untreated (again, I am assuming that this means individuals not undergoing hormone therapy) male-to-female transsexual (MtF) individuals appeared to be inbetweeners when compared to cis-gendered male and female individuals, seeming neither predominantly male nor female. The article goes on to add: One of the four regions – the superior longitudinal fascicle – is particularly interesting, she says. "It connects the parietal lobe [involved in sensory processing] and frontal lobe [involved in planning movement] and may have implications in body perception."

I find this effing cool, and it is definitely an interesting discovery. I'm all for anything that puts evidence on the side that these things (anything deviating from cis-gendered heterosexuality) are in many cases hardwired into us and not necessarily a choice. However, I am concerned by the claims made in the article that these methods could be used to identify transsexual children and delay puberty for them. The argument is that delayed puberty can result in more successful sex change operations, but I am incredibly concerned by the idea of labeling children as transsexual before they've even developed their own understanding of gender and sexuality. Lots of people experience gender dysphoria in their adolescent years, but not all of them grow up to become transmen and transwomen (I am speaking from experience, here). I wish I knew a trans neurobiologist, because I know there's a myriad of issues going on here, but I don't have the tools to tease them apart myself.

Photo: Daniela Sea, a female actress playing Max Sweeney, a female-to-male transsexual on The L Word. Photo credit: Paul Michaud/Showtime.


  1. "I'm all for anything that puts evidence on the side that these things (anything deviating from cis-gendered heterosexuality) are in many cases hardwired into us and not necessarily a choice."

    I don't mean to come across as a prig, but I feel like we should be "all for" good science, not results that advance a particular agenda, however laudable.

    Anyway, I agree with your points regarding gender dysphoria. As a kid, I frequently felt like a girl (albeit a tomboyish one). For some reason, going through puberty seemed to jump start my male identity though, so now I couldn't imagine wanting to be or feeling like a woman. I guess it had something to do with hormones, or brain development...who knows?

  2. I am absolutely all for good science, but as a queer person I do feel personally vindicated when good science comes out on my side. :)

  3. There was a program about a year ago on the bbc about transgendered children, who were allowed to go on hormone treatment before puberty. It allows for a much smoother transition and makes it far easier for the children in question to settle down to being who they are.

    Lots of kids might go through gender dysphoria, but very few of them would be wonderfully keen on making a huge life-change, many kids would rather eat live worms than go willingly to a hospital. At the risk of using anecdata, I had moments of feeling 'like a boy' when I was a child, (and indeed sometimes I still do) but at no point would I have wanted to make major permanent changes to my body. It is quite a big difference between merely being unsure, or not certain whether to commit to a certain body image, and being absolutely totally certain that something about your body is out.

    And I agree with Michelle. It's not so much putting science on an agenda as it is just getting a result that strongly confirms your own suspicions. People don't seem to accept "but this is how I feel I am" as a reason, so it's nice to have some hard science to wave at them.

  4. Hi I read your post on Religion and followed to here. I looked at the photo and said what a good looking man. Must send the link to a girl friend in OZ. Then read the story and found out, he is a she. Great I thought, I am a gay male so am I straight now ?:-) Would love to see the movie never heard of it. They should send it to "Ellen D." and get exposure in America. Daniela for sure makes a very good looking man or Ellen kind of lady.
    I just hope no parents will start thinking because the science makes it possible, to change ones destiny, that it may be ok to start "treating" children and taking away from them their choice on how to grown up and into a life of their own.
    Thanks for reading this far.
    Art Director,Costume & Set Designer & Actor
    for the movie in my link

  5. I am vaguely familiar with the treatment, LR, but I have to wonder what protocols are in place to make sure that this is the right decision for the child? This is one of those weird grey issues, because a lot of transpeople say they knew they were trans from a very early age, but there are also lots of people who experienced gender dysphoria who ultimately grow up to be happy with their bodies. How do you decide which is which?

    Vic: If you perceived him as a man when you felt attracted to him, then no, it doesn't make you straight. ;) It isn't a movie but actually an American TV show.

  6. Vic: "he" is not a "she" - he is a he. You are a man who just got attracted to a man and I wouldn't worry about it either way :p

    Michelle: The kids that had chosen to go through with the hormone treatment were some of the most mature, sensible and well-informed kids I've ever seen. They knew what they were doing, and they had made the decision to spend lots of time in uncomfortable hospitals because they were certain of what they wanted. In many cases it was the parents that needed the most reassurance and help and advice. Most of the kids had been bullied fairly heavily as well, and were almost heartbreakingly mature about it.

    It's one of those cases where if the child shows *any* kind of uncertainty of hesitation it's best not to do it. But if they are certain you start heading into the dodgy area of what right you have to tell them to stay in the wrong body.

    Whatever the science says, the best way to find out what gender someone is is still just to ask...


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