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Puberty Sharply Divides Boys, Girls In Brain Blood Flow

May 30, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology, Pediatric Radiology
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Brain scans show that puberty brings changes in brain blood flow: it decreases for boys but increases for girls.

That could explain a lot.

A group led by researchers at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania used arterial spin labeled MRI to image the brains of 922 youths, ages 8 through 22. Earlier studies had shown that cerebral blood flow declined throughout childhood. And studies of adults showed that women had higher cerebral blood flow than men. The researchers guessed that the divergence began during adolescence.

They were right. Theodore D. Satterthwaite, MD, lead author of an article about the research published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explained the significance of the discovery:

These findings help us understand normal neurodevelopment and could be a step towards creating normal ‘growth charts’ for brain development in kids. These results also show what every parent knows: boys and girls grow differently. This applies to the brain as well.

Dr. Satterthwaite is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the medical school. He was quoted in a Penn news release.

The brain imaging showed that cerebral blood flow declined at similar rates among both boys and girls until about age 16. At that point, while male blood flow continued to decline, the brain blood flow for females actually increased. The difference was most notable in parts of the brain tied to social behaviors and emotional regulation.

Dr. Satterthwaite said the differences in blood flow could be associated with the higher risk among women for depression and anxiety disorders and the higher risk among men for flat affect (severe reduction in emotional expressiveness) and schizophrenia. If researchers are actually able to construct charts showing “normal” brain development, Dr. Satterthwaite said, “One day such growth charts might allow us to identify abnormal brain development much earlier before it leads to major mental illness.”

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