Evolving knowledge of sex differences in brain structure, function, and chemistry

Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Oct 15;62(8):847-55. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2007.03.001. Epub 2007 Jun 4.


Clinical and epidemiologic evidence demonstrates sex differences in the prevalence and course of various psychiatric disorders. Understanding sex-specific brain differences in healthy individuals is a critical first step toward understanding sex-specific expression of psychiatric disorders. Here, we evaluate evidence on sex differences in brain structure, chemistry, and function using imaging methodologies, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in mentally healthy individuals. MEDLINE searches of English-language literature (1980-November 2006) using the terms sex, gender, PET, SPECT, MRI, fMRI, morphometry, neurochemistry, and neurotransmission were performed to extract relevant sources. The literature suggests that while there are many similarities in brain structure, function, and neurotransmission in healthy men and women, there are important differences that distinguish the male from the female brain. Overall, brain volume is greater in men than women; yet, when controlling for total volume, women have a higher percentage of gray matter and men a higher percentage of white matter. Regional volume differences are less consistent. Global cerebral blood flow is higher in women than in men. Sex-specific differences in dopaminergic, serotonergic, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic markers indicate that male and female brains are neurochemically distinct. Insight into the etiology of sex differences in the normal living human brain provides an important foundation to delineate the pathophysiological mechanisms underlying sex differences in neuropsychiatric disorders and to guide the development of sex-specific treatments for these devastating brain disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Chemistry / physiology
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Menstrual Cycle / physiology
  • Receptors, Serotonin / physiology
  • Serotonin / physiology
  • Sex Characteristics*


  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Receptors, Serotonin
  • Serotonin