Sexual differentiation of the human hypothalamus: Relationship to gender identity and sexual orientation

Dick F Swaab, Samantha E C Wolff, Ai-Min Bao

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

Gender identity (an individual's perception of being male or female) and sexual orientation (heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality) are programmed into our brain during early development. During the intrauterine period in the second half of pregnancy, a testosterone surge masculinizes the fetal male brain. If such a testosterone surge does not occur, this will result in a feminine brain. As sexual differentiation of the brain takes place at a much later stage in development than sexual differentiation of the genitals, these two processes can be influenced independently of each other and can result in gender dysphoria. Nature produces a great variability for all aspects of sexual differentiation of the brain. Mechanisms involved in sexual differentiation of the brain include hormones, genetics, epigenetics, endocrine disruptors, immune response, and self-organization. Furthermore, structural and functional differences in the hypothalamus relating to gender dysphoria and sexual orientation are described in this review. All the genetic, postmortem, and in vivo scanning observations support the neurobiological theory about the origin of gender dysphoria, i.e., it is the sizes of brain structures, the neuron numbers, the molecular composition, functions, and connectivity of brain structures that determine our gender identity or sexual orientation. There is no evidence that one's postnatal social environment plays a crucial role in the development of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)427-443
Number of pages17
JournalHandbook of Clinical Neurology
Volume181
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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