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Brain may 'hard-wire' sexuality before birth

Refuting 30 years of scientific theory that solely credits hormones for brain development, UCLA scientists have identified 54 genes that may explain the different organization of male and female brains. Published in the October edition of the journal Molecular Brain Research, the UCLA discovery suggests that sexual identity is hard-wired into the brain before birth and may offer physicians a tool for gender assignment of babies born with ambiguous genitalia.

"Our findings may help answer an important question -- why do we feel male or female?" said Dr. Eric Vilain, assistant professor of human genetics and urology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a pediatrician at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital. "Sexual identity is rooted in every person's biology before birth and springs from a variation in our individual genome."

Since the 1970s, scientists have believed that estrogen and testosterone were wholly responsible for sexually organizing the brain. In other words, a fetal brain simply needed to produce more testosterone to become male. Recent evidence, however, indicates that hormones cannot explain everything about the sexual differences between male and female brains.

Vilain and his colleagues explored whether genetic influences could explain the variations between male and female brains. Using two genetic testing methods, they compared the production of genes in male and female brains in embryonic mice -- long before the animals developed sex organs.

To their surprise, the researchers found 54 genes produced in different amounts in male and female mouse brains, prior to hormonal influence. Eighteen of the genes were produced at higher levels in the male brains; 36 were produced at higher levels in the female brains.

"We didn't expect to find genetic differences between the sexes' brains," Vilain said. "But we discovered that the male and female brains differed in many measurable ways, including anatomy and
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Contact: Elaine Schmidt
elaines@support.ucla.edu
310-794-2272
University of California - Los Angeles
21-Oct-2003


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