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hormones, brain and behaviour, a not-so-simple story

There’s a simple story about sex differences in cognition, which traces these back to sex differences in early brain development, which are in turn due to hormone differences. Diagrammatically, it looks something like this:

Cordelia Fine’s “Delusions of Gender” (2010) accuses both scientists and popularisers of science with being too ready to believe overly simple, and biologically fixed, accounts of sex differences in cognition.

There is an undeniable sex difference in foetal testosterone in humans at around 6-8 weeks after conception. In Chapter 9 of her book, Fine introduces Simon Baron-Cohen, who seems to claim that this surge in male hormones is the reason why men are more likely to be Autistic, and why no woman had ever won the Fields Medal. So, diagrammatically:

This account may appear, at first, compelling, perhaps because of its simplicity. But Fine presents us with an antidote for this initial intuition, in the form of the neurodevelopmental story of a the spinal nucleus of the bulbocavernosus (SNB), a subcortical brain area which controls muscles at the base of the penis.

Even here, the route between hormone, brain difference and behaviour is not so simple, as shown by neat experiments with rats by Celia Moore, described by Fine (p.105 in my edition). Moore showed that male rat pups are licked more by their mothers, and that this licking is due to excess testosterone in their urine. Mothers which couldn’t smell, licked male and female pups equally, and female pups injected with testosterone were licked as much as male pups. This licking had an extra developmental effect on the SNB, which could be mimicked by manual brushing of a pup’s perineum. Separate work showed that testosterone doesn’t act directly on the neurons of the SNB, but instead prevents cell death in the SNB by preserving the muscles which it connects to (in males). So, diagrammatically:

One review, summarising what is known about the development of the SNB, writes ‘[There is] a life-long plasticity in even this simple system [and] evidence that adult androgens interact with social experience in order to affect the SNB system’. Not so simple!



What I love about this story is the complexity of developmental causes. Even in the rat, not the human! Even in the subcortex, not the cortex! Even in a brain area which direct controls a penis reflex. Fine’s implicit question for Baron-Cohen seems to be: If evolution creates this level of complexity for something as important for reproductive function, what is likely for the brain areas responsible for something as selectively-irrelevant as winning prizes at Mathematics?

Notice also the variety of interactions, not just the number : hormones -> body, body -> sensation in mother’s brain, brain -> behaviour, mother’s behaviour -> pup’s sensation, sensation -> cell growth. This is a developmental story which happens across hormones, brain, body, behaviour and individuals.

Against this example, sex differences in cognition due to early hormone differences look far from inevitable, and the simple hormone-brain-behaviour looks like a crude summary at best. Whether you take it to mean that sex differences in hormones have multiple routes to generate sex differences in cognition (a ‘small differences add up’ model) or that sex differences in hormones will cancel each other out, may depend on your other assumptions about development. At a minimum, the story of the SNB shows that those assumptions are worth checking.

Previously: gender brain blogging

Paper: Moore, C. L., Dou, H., & Juraska, J. M. (1992). Maternal stimulation affects the number of motor neurons in a sexually dimorphic nucleus of the lumbar spinal cord. Brain research, 572(1), 52-56.

Source for the 2009 claim by Baron-Cohen claim that foetal hormones explain why no woman has won the Fields medal: Autism test ‘could hit maths skills’.

In 2014 Maryam Mirzakhabi won the Fields medal.

Diagrams made with draw.io


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