Gender Differences in Responses to Stress
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used a high-tech imaging method to scan the brains of 16 men and 16 women. The subjects were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or fMRI in order to visualise how the human brain reacts during periods of stress. Magnetic resonance imaging uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field rather than X-rays to take clear and detailed pictures of internal organs and tissues. fMRI uses this technology to identify regions of the brain where blood vessels are expanding, chemical changes are taking place, or extra oxygen is being delivered.
Researchers then purposely induced moderate performance stress by asking the men and women to count backward by 13, starting at 1,600. Researchers monitored the subject's heart rate. They also measured the blood flow to the brain and checked for cortisol, a stress hormone.
The Results: Confirming Mars and Venus Theory?
The results showed significant gender differences in responses to stress. Men responded with increased blood flow to the right prefrontal cortex, responsible for "fight or flight." This describes the process when the adrenal glands produce more adrenaline and cortisol, thereby speeding up heart and breathing rate and increasing blood pressure and metabolism. It is a mechanism to help humans physically react quickly and effectively. While effective for short periods, on the long term, it is detrimental to one's health. The nervous system keeps on producing extra stress hormones, leaving the person feeling depleted and weakening the body's immune system.
Women in the study demonstrated an increased blood flow to the limbic system, which is also associated with a more nurturing and friendly response. Other studies suggest that changes in the brain during stress response last longer in women.
The neuroscientists argue that gender should play a greater role in the treatment of mood disorders, including depression:
"In the future, when physicians treat patients -- especially depression, PTSD -- they need to take this into account that really, gender matters"
Other experts caution that hormones, genetics and environmental factors may influence these results, bringing to light yet another difference between men and women.
- Neuroscientists Find That Men And Women Respond Differently To Stress, 1.4.2008, Science Daily