Gender inequality impacts women’s brain development: Study

The study explored differences among men and women in terms of the thickness and surface area of the brain cortex as well as the volume of the hippocampus
Last Updated : 28 May 2023, 01:51 IST

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Gender inequality affects women’s brain development, making them more vulnerable to mental health issues and lower academic achievement, according to a first-of-its-kind global study that looked at the issue on a large scale.

The study found that women in countries like India, where gender inequality is rampant, exhibited changes in the brain that researchers said happen due to prolonged adverse environments and subsequent stress response.

These changes were not found in women from more egalitarian countries, notes the study that was published in the journal 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' this month.

For the study, researchers analysed 7,876 MRI scans of men and women from 29 countries, aged between 18 and 31 years. This included around 540 scans of Indians from Bengaluru's NIMHANS and other sites.

The study explored differences among men and women in terms of the thickness and surface area of the brain cortex as well as the volume of the hippocampus. It also developed a gender-equality metric for each country based on the global Gender Inequality Index and Gender Gap Index.

Researchers found that in countries with greater gender equality, there was practically no difference in cortical thickness among men and women. But in more gender unequal countries like India and China, women’s cortices were thinner than that of men in the right hemisphere in two regions - anterior cingulate gyrus and orbitofrontal gyrus.

“These two regions are involved in functions like error monitoring, emotion versus cognition balancing, decision-making in response to reward and punishment, etc," said NIMHANS Assistant Professor Dr Bharath Holla, a co-author of the study.

"Potentially these aspects could be more affected, making women more vulnerable to mental health issues as a group. Our national surveys have also shown women are more prone to depression and anxiety than men."

Changes in these brain regions have been found in stress-induced conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the study says.

“The study shows that gender inequality is not only a social issue, but it is also causing long-lasting changes in how brains develop and affects downstream functioning. Women in unequal societies have to deal with a lot more stress than women from other societies,” said co-author and NIMHANS professor Dr Vivek Benegal.

The study recommends policies promoting gender equality.

Published 27 May 2023, 19:06 IST

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