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Is Your Brain Pink or Blue?

A new book by Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin Institute of Medicine, examines the role that very subtle differences in parents' expectations may create differences in brain development of boy and girl babies.

According to an article about Pink Brains, Blue Brains in Newsweek, many studies show that parents' expectations for gender-based behavior or competencies can lead to reinforcing those tendencies in kids.

For example, in a study where people were told that male newborns were female and vice versa, they rated the "male" babies as more irritable.

I haven't read the book, but the Newsweek article points up a bit of a contradiction. Eliot may be saying that all the differences in adult brains can be tied to differences in nurturing, but the article itself contradicts that:

For instance, baby boys are more irritable than girls. That makes parents likely to interact less with their "nonsocial" sons, which could cause the sexes' developmental pathways to diverge. By 4 months of age, boys and girls differ in how much eye contact they make, and differences in sociability, emotional expressivity, and verbal ability—all of which depend on interactions with parents—grow throughout childhood. The message that sons are wired to be nonverbal and emotionally distant thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This makes sense, except ... we're starting with, "baby boys are more irritable than girls." If this is the case, then it implies that there is an innate difference, perhaps because of the greater testosterone in the male baby's brain and body. 

I can certainly buy a theory that nurture can enhance these innate differences. But I have to agree with Michael Gurian (and a lot of science) that the differences in the amounts of testosterone and estrogen in a baby's brain guide neurodevelopment, especially in the first three years of life, when the neurons are forming connections that will last throughout our lives.

Gurian, authof of a series of excellent parenting books, including The Wonder of Boys, put out a press release saying,

It seems that most of the world already senses that boys and girls are inherently different (albeit on a vast spectrum, not stereotypes), but some people still fear this human experience, or aren't sure what to make of it.   Unfortunately, these books/articles select evidence and don’t take into account brain scans and other hard science; and they extrapolate the effect of socialization on formation of gender in the brain. For instance, PBBB provides a study of children who are encouraged to climb a hill a certain way and extrapolates that because there were differences in how parents talked to boys/girls, this could somehow account for the profound differences that show on PET and SPECT scans between girls and boys' brains.

He also posts some research on his site showing gender-based differences in the brain.

This is an argument that won't be resolved any time soon. It's important for parents to think about this and do what they can not to reinforce crippling gender roles on kids of either sex. For our grown-up relationships, I still think that looking at our emotions and interactions through the lens of neurochemistry can provide insight and comfort.

Laura Berman: Equal but Different

Dr. Laura Berman, author of Talking to Your Kids about Sex, has a nice way of navigating the issue of gender equality with neurochemical difference. From via MSNBC. Her advice for parents:

Try saying something like: “I know I have taught you that boys and girls are equal, and they are. But that doesn’t mean that we are the same. Men and women have different hormones that affect the way they think and feel, and some of your hormones might make you feel in love with your partner after you have sex.”

Oxytocin, PTSD and Ecstasy

I've written a couple of times about the prospects for using the drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

See Ecstasy Drug Could be PTSD Breakthrough and Ecstasy Helps PTSD Treatment. It turns out that MDMA causes the brain to release oxytocin, which, when MDMA is used recreationally, causes that oceanic feeling of blissful connectedness. This same effect could make a person more open to psychotherapy by allowing him or her to connect with the therapist. One of oxytocin's effects is to calm the amygdala, making a person less likely to perceive others as angry or threatening.

Matt Palmquist has an interview with the two scientists looking at this, PØ Johansen and Teri Krebs, on the Miller McCune website.

They told Palmquist,

There is a common misconception that psychotherapy is a really long process of vaguely defined "talking" and that it probably isn't that effective anyway. Actually, exposure therapy (in particular "prolonged exposure therapy," as developed by Dr. Edna Foa at the University of Pennsylvania) is short-term, structured, based on scientific behavioral principles of conditioning and extinction, and validated by many controlled studies. For most patients, exposure therapy has clinically significant effects on anxiety after a few hours, and for PTSD, exposure therapy has demonstrated long-term positive results after 10 to 12 hourlong weekly therapy sessions. If MDMA could facilitate exposure, then it is entirely understandable that MDMA-augmented therapy could have lasting long-term effects on PTSD symptoms, after a few four- to six-hour therapy sessions with MDMA, within a course of short-term therapy.

Where to Get Oxytocin for Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder

As I've written in other posts, there's speculation that oxytocin could relieve persistent genital arousal disorder (PGAD), also known as persistent genital arousal syndrome, or PGAS.

A couple years ago, a doctor posted a letter saying he's had success treating PGAD with oxytocin. However, he hasn't responded to me via phone or email, nor has he published anything else about this.

Nevertheless, I think there's a strong possiblity that this treatment could help. Usually, there is a strong release of oxytocin from the pituitary gland at orgasm, followed later by a release of prolactin. Oxytocin, among other things, causes smooth muscle contractions, including contractions of the uterine walls during orgasm. These contractions could be responsible for releasing blood engorging the clitoris.

After orgasm, prolactin reduces sexual desire temporarily, increasing the relaxation caused by oxytocin.

If for some reason enough oxytocin isn't released at orgasm, engorgement and excitation of the nerves might not dissipate.

While many women report that doctors don't take this condition seriously, let alone have any help for them, women with PGAD might get relief from naturopaths or acupuncturists. Acupuncturists can stimulate the release of oxytocin by placing the needles at certain points. Because Chinese medicine has a different conceptual framework from Western medicine, you need to ask the acupuncturist to stimulate the points "forbidden during pregnancy." They're forbidden during pregnancy because they release oxytocin, which could produce premature labor.

Naturopaths also have access to oxytocin lozenges which are placed under the tongue. A naturopath may be more willing than an MD to consider trying this at your request. If you suffer from persistent genital arousal disorder, it's certainly worth a try.

You can read my previous post on oxytocin and PGAS or PGAD here: Oxytocin Could Relieve Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder.

Oxytocin: The Next Human Enhancement Drug

No less a mainstream pub than Time magazine discusses the possibility of using oxytocin as a drug not only for treating "disorders" such as social anxiety, but also for just making life better.

In an interview, Nick Bostrom, director of The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, says it's time to start talking about whether and how we should use science for human enhancement. That is, using all available technologies, from drugs to computers, to enhance human performance. As the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies puts it, "Human enhancement technologies (HET) are techniques that can be used not simply for treating illness and disability, but also for enhancing human characteristics and capacities."

That would include the capacity for love, of course.

In the Time interview, Bostrom says,

... what is most persuasive for me personally is comparing the best times of my life with the worst times. The difference is pretty big. So I ask, why can't it be like the best times more often? Then I observe that there are all kinds of biological constraints that make this difficult or impossible. Some form of enhancement would be needed to mitigate these constraints.

Oxytocin, whether naturally produced or artificially administered, does allow us to feel that deep, wonderful connection that we crave.