The Telegraph

Friday 25 June 1999

Why women aren't lost - for words

Brain imaging reveals more about differences in men and women
[23 Jun '99] - Institute of Psychiatry

By Roger Highfield
The Daily Telegraph/Electronic Telegraph (London, UK)

SCIENTISTS have shed new light on why women are better listeners than men and why men are better at map reading.

A study using the latest brain scanner technology found that men and women activate different parts of the brain when they carry out tests linked with these tasks. Dr Tonmoy Sharma of the Institute of Psychiatry, London, said: "Maybe science sometimes just proves what we already know."

The study, presented to the Human Brain Mapping meeting in Dusseldorf, may show why men are less talkative, for example. Dr Sharma, who headed the research team, said: "When you think of conversations with a female colleague, we are normally quiet and lost for words."

He used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the brain in action. Twenty people, 10 men and 10 women, performed two tasks to test language and memory skills while undergoing brain scans. He said yesterday: "We loaded one test so women are better, and the other so that men are better." Earlier studies revealed that men have better spatial skills, which is linked to the use of working memory, so that they find it easier to read maps and distinguish right from left.

However, women are better at processing complex verbal information, which Dr Sharma tested with a language task. Dr Sharma designed the tests so that both sexes could peform them equally well: if men had become frustrated while performing the test, and vice versa, the brain scans could have become confused - for instance by heightened activity in areas of the brain linked to frustration or disappointment.

He did find different patterns of brain activity that could shed light on why men excel at one task and women the other. During the memory task, men activated the supplementary motor area more than women. The region, found in the frontal lobe of the brain, is involved in spatial skills, such as map reading, among a variety of activities such as intention.

However, in the language task, women showed stronger activation than men of a region called the dorsolateral prefrontal gyrus, a region found on both sides of the brain that is involved in manipulating information. The memory task was conducted by showing the volunteers a sequence of letters and asking them to press a button when they recognised a certain sequence. The language task was tested by giving volunteers a word and asking them to judge if it was living or non-living.

This kind of work on sex differences could have implications for conditions such as schizophrenia and depression, where the incidence is linked to gender. Dr Sharma said: "Further brain imaging research on gender differences could help explain the higher incidence of depression in women or why men succumb to schizophrenia at an earlier age than women."

This is not the first time that such sex differences have been identified. Several years ago, Prof Ruben Gur and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Centre used a different brain scanner technique to study whether there were sex differences in metabolism in the areas of the brain that control emotions and cognition.

The scanner revealed that the region that is thought to control more "action-oriented" emotional responses was more active in men, while the higher centre of the brain thought to control more "symbolic" emotional responses was more active in women. The findings supported the possibility that men are more biologically inclined to express themselves physically, such as through aggression, and women are biologically disposed to talk things through, said Prof Gur.

Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 1999.