What is the cause of mental health differences in men and women? It's all in the brain's blood flow, study suggests. Researchers from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that cerebral blood flow (CBF) differs significantly between boys and girls during puberty. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), sheds some light on sex-specific risks for disorders such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

Observing the Brain in Adolescence

Researchers chose 922 participants from the Philadelphia Neurodevelopment Cohort, a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania Brain Behavior Laboratory and the Center for Applied Genomics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Using arterial spin labeled (ASL) MRI, they studied the brains of the recruits, all aged between eight and 22 years old.

They found that cerebral blood flow between males and females declined at a similar rate in childhood but differed significantly upon puberty. At the age of 16, male CBF continued to decline while their female counterparts experienced higher levels of CBF in the brain. By the time they reached post adolescence, females had distinctly higher amounts of cerebral blood flow than males. Researchers found this difference to be most prominent in areas of the brain responsible for social behaviors and emotion regulation.

How CBF Influences Anxiety and Other Psychiatric Risks in the Sexes

"These findings help us understand normal neurodevelopment and could be a step towards creating normal 'growth charts' for brain development in kids," says Dr. Theodore D. Satterthwaite, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine. He notes that the research can contribute to early identification of major mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders.

Most notably, their results could also be the explanation for the higher risk of anxiety in women and the higher risk of schizophrenia in men. Adding to previous research that shows the decline of cerebral blood flow in childhood, this study is one of the first to demonstrate the influence of puberty on aspects of brain physiology, such as CBF, as well as its effects on the inclinations of sex-specific psychiatric disorders.

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T. D. Satterthwaite, R. T. Shinohara, D. H. Wolf, R. D. Hopson, M. A. Elliott, S. N. Vandekar, K. Ruparel, M. E. Calkins, D. R. Roalf, E. D. Gennatas, C. Jackson, G. Erus, K. Prabhakaran, C. Davatzikos, J. A. Detre, H. Hakonarson, R. C. Gur, R. E. Gur. Impact of puberty on the evolution of cerebral perfusion during adolescence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1400178111

Date of original publication:

Updated: November 10, 2015