Neuroimaging gender dysphoria: a novel psychobiological model

Brain Imaging Behav. 2020 Aug;14(4):1281-1297. doi: 10.1007/s11682-019-00121-8.


Gender identity development is complex and involves several key processes. Transgender people experience incongruence between their biological and identified gender. This incongruence can cause significant impairment in overall functioning and lead to gender dysphoria (GD). The pathophysiology of GD is complex and is poorly understood. A PubMed search based on predetermined eligibility criteria was conducted to review neuropsychiatric articles focused on neurological, biological and neuroimaging aspects of gender development, transgender identity and GD. The information obtained from the literature was then used to formulize a GD model. Distinct gray matter volume and brain activation and connectivity differences were found in individuals with GD compared to controls, suggesting a neurobiological basis of GD; which leads to the concept of brain gender. Individuals with GD encounter a recurrent conflict between their brain gender and the societal feedback; which causes recurrent and ongoing cognitive dissonance, finally leading to GD and functional connectivity and activation changes in the transgender brain. GD has neurobiological basis, but it is closely associated with the individuals' interaction with the external world, their self-perception and the feedback received in return. We propose a novel model where the development of GD includes cognitive dissonance, involving anterior cingulate cortex and ventral striatum as the key brain structures. This model can be used to generate testable hypotheses using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques to understand the neuropsychobiology of GD.

Keywords: Depression; Gender dysphoria; Mood; Neuroimaging; Transgender.

Publication types

  • Review