gender

Girls less likely to be diagnosed autistic even when symptoms severe

December, 2010

A new study finds that gender and maternal assertiveness are factors in determining whether children with autistic symptoms are diagnosed with ASD.

No one is denying that boys are far more likely to be autistic than girls, but a new study has found that this perception of autism as a male disorder also means that girls are less likely to be diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) even when their symptoms are equally severe.

Another factor affecting diagnosis was maternal age — those diagnosed with ASD were likely to have older mothers. It’s suggested that this may be because older mothers are better at identifying their children's difficulties and have more confidence in bringing concerns to the clinic. This is supported by the finding that first-born children were less likely to be diagnosed with ASD, as were children of mothers with depression.

Ethnic origin, maternal class and mother's marital status did not significantly predict a child either having an ASD diagnosis or displaying severe autistic traits.

The findings were based on an analysis of data from a longitudinal UK cohort study, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

Reference: 

Russell, G., Steer, C. & Golding, J. 2010. Social and demographic factors that influence the diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. DOI 10.1007/s00127-010-0294-z.
Full text is available at http://springerlink.com/content/a67371l826m1xl76/fulltext.pdf

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Review makes clear no gender differences in math ability

November, 2010

Analysis of hundreds of studies has found no difference between male and female in terms of their math skills.

A meta-analysis of 242 articles assessing the math skills of 1,286,350 people found no difference between the two sexes. This was confirmed in an analysis of the data from several large surveys of American adolescents (the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress).

Reference: 

[1924] Lindberg, S. M., Hyde J S., Petersen J. L., & Linn M. C.
(2010).  New trends in gender and mathematics performance: A meta-analysis..
Psychological Bulletin. 136(6), 1123 - 1135.

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Women's brains grow after giving birth

November, 2010

A small study indicates that nurturing mothers and increased reward centers in the brain go hand-in-hand — although the jury’s still out on which comes first.

The issue of “mommy brain” is a complex one. Inconsistent research results make it clear that there is no simple answer to the question of whether or not pregnancy and infant care change women’s brains. But a new study adds to the picture.

Brain scans of 19 women two to four weeks and three to four months after they gave birth showed that grey matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in the midbrain (amygdala, substantia nigra, hypothalamus), prefrontal cortex, and parietal lobe. These areas are involved in motivation and reward, emotion regulation, planning, and sensory perception.

Mothers who were most enthusiastic about their babies were significantly more likely to show this increase in the midbrain regions. The authors speculated that the “maternal instinct” might be less of an instinctive response and more of a result of active brain building. Interestingly, while the brain’s reward regions don’t usually change as a result of learning, one experience that does have this effect is that of addiction.

While the reasons may have to do with genes, personality traits, infant behavior, or present circumstances, previous research has found that mothers who had more nurturing in their childhood had more grey matter in those brain regions involved in empathy and reading faces, which also correlated with the degree of activation in those regions when their baby cried.

A larger study is of course needed to confirm these findings.

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When estrogen helps memory, and when it doesn’t

November, 2010

Recent rodent studies confirm attention and learning is more difficult for women when estrogen is high, but estrogen therapy can help menopausal women — if given during a critical window.

Recent rodent studies add to our understanding of how estrogen affects learning and memory. A study found that adult female rats took significantly longer to learn a new association when they were in periods of their estrus cycle with high levels of estrogen, compared to their ability to learn when their estrogen level was low. The effect was not found among pre-pubertal rats. The study follows on from an earlier study using rats with their ovaries removed, whose learning was similarly affected when given high levels of estradiol.

Human females have high estrogen levels while they are ovulating. These high levels have also been shown to interfere with women's ability to pay attention.

On the other hand, it needs to be remembered that estrogen therapy has been found to help menopausal and post-menopausal women. It has also been found to be detrimental. Recent research has suggested that timing is important, and it’s been proposed that a critical period exists during which hormone therapy must be administered if it is to improve cognitive function.

This finds some support in another recent rodent study, which found that estrogen replacement increased long-term potentiation (a neural event that underlies memory formation) in young adult rats with their ovaries removed, through its effects on NMDA receptors and dendritic spine density — but only if given within 15 months of the ovariectomy. By 19 months, the same therapy couldn’t induce the changes.

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Having a male twin improves mental rotation performance in females

October, 2010

A twin study suggests prenatal testosterone may be a factor in the innate male superiority in mental rotation*.

Because male superiority in mental rotation appears to be evident at a very young age, it has been suggested that testosterone may be a factor. To assess whether females exposed to higher levels of prenatal testosterone perform better on mental rotation tasks than females with lower levels of testosterone, researchers compared mental rotation task scores between twins from same-sex and opposite-sex pairs.

It was found that females with a male co-twin scored higher than did females with a female co-twin (there was no difference in scores between males from opposite-sex and same-sex pairs). Of course, this doesn’t prove that that the differences are produced in the womb; it may be that girls with a male twin engage in more male-typical activities. However, the association remained after allowing for computer game playing experience.

The study involved 804 twins, average age 22, of whom 351 females were from same-sex pairs and 120 from opposite-sex pairs. There was no significant difference between females from identical same-sex pairs compared to fraternal same-sex pairs.

* Please do note that ‘innate male superiority’ does NOT mean that all men are inevitably better than all women at this very specific task! My words simply reflect the evidence that the tendency of males to be better at mental rotation is found in infants as young as 3 months.

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Gender gap in spatial ability can be reduced through training

October, 2010

Male superiority in mental rotation is the most-cited gender difference in cognitive abilities. A new study shows that the difference can be eliminated in 6-year-olds after a mere 8 weeks.

Following a monkey study that found training in spatial memory could raise females to the level of males, and human studies suggesting the video games might help reduce gender differences in spatial processing (see below for these), a new study shows that training in spatial skills can eliminate the gender difference in young children. Spatial ability, along with verbal skills, is one of the two most-cited cognitive differences between the sexes, for the reason that these two appear to be the most robust.

This latest study involved 116 first graders, half of whom were put in a training program that focused on expanding working memory, perceiving spatial information as a whole rather than concentrating on details, and thinking about spatial geometric pictures from different points of view. The other children took part in a substitute training program, as a control group. Initial gender differences in spatial ability disappeared for those who had been in the spatial training group after only eight weekly sessions.

Previously:

A study of 90 adult rhesus monkeys found young-adult males had better spatial memory than females, but peaked early. By old age, male and female monkeys had about the same performance. This finding is consistent with reports suggesting that men show greater age-related cognitive decline relative to women. A second study of 22 rhesus monkeys showed that in young adulthood, simple spatial-memory training did not help males but dramatically helped females, raising their performance to the level of young-adult males and wiping out the gender gap.

Another study showing that expert video gamers have improved mental rotation skills, visual and spatial memory, and multitasking skills has led researchers to conclude that training with video games may serve to reduce gender differences in visual and spatial processing, and some of the cognitive declines that come with aging.

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Building language skills more critical for boys than girls

October, 2010

A study of language and self-regulation skills in toddlers suggests that having a good vocabulary helps boys in particular control their behavior and emotions.

A study involving 120 toddlers, tested at 14, 24, and 36 months, has assessed language skills (spoken vocabulary and talkativeness) and the development of self-regulation. Self-regulation is an important skill that predicts later academic and social success. Previous research has found that language skills (and vocabulary in particular) help children regulate their emotions and behavior. Boys have also been shown to lag behind girls in both language and self-regulation.

The present study hoped to explain inconsistencies in previous research findings by accounting for general cognitive development and possible gender differences. It found that vocabulary was more important than talkativeness, and 24-month vocabulary predicted the development of self-regulation even when general cognitive development was accounted for. However, girls seemed ‘naturally’ better able to control themselves and focus, but the ability in boys was much more associated with language skills. Boys with a strong vocabulary showed a dramatic increase in self-regulation, becoming comparable to girls with a strong vocabulary.

These gender differences suggest that language skills may be more important for boys, and that more emphasis should be placed on encouraging young boys to use words to solve problems, rather than accepting that ‘boys will be boys’.

Reference: 

[1871] Vallotton, C., & Ayoub C.
(Submitted).  Use your words: The role of language in the development of toddlers' self-regulation.
Early Childhood Research Quarterly. In Press, Uncorrected Proof,

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Memory problems more common in older men?

October, 2010

A large community study of older adults has found mild cognitive impairment was more prevalent in men.

A study involving 2,050 people aged 70 to 89 has found that mild cognitive impairment was 1.5 times more common in men than women. Among the 1,969 who did not have dementia, over 16% (329) had MCI — around 11% amnestic MCI (MCI-A) and 5% non-amnestic (MCI-MCD). A total of 19% of men had MCI, compared to 14% of women. MCI was also more common among the never-married, those with the APOEe4 (Alzheimer’s risk) gene, and those with less education.

This is the first study conducted among community-dwelling persons to find a higher prevalence of MCI in men. However, I note that some years ago I reported on a Dutch study involving some 600 85-year-olds, that found that significantly more women than men had a good memory (41% vs 29%; good mental speed on word and number recognition tests was also found in more women than men: 33% vs 28%). This was considered particularly surprising, given that significantly more of the women had limited formal education compared to the men.

The researchers suggested biological factors such as the relative absence of cardiovascular disease in the women might account for the difference. I would suggest another factor might be social, given that social stimulation has been shown to help prevent cognitive decline, and women are more likely than men to keep up social links in old age.

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Negative stereotypes affect learning, not just performance

August, 2010

Following on from several studies showing that being reminded of a negative stereotype for your group (be it race or gender) affects your test performance, a new study shows it also impairs learning.

A number of studies have demonstrated that negative stereotypes (such as “women are bad at math”) can impair performance in tests. Now a new study shows that this effect extends to learning. The study involved learning to recognize target Chinese characters among sets of two or four. Women who were reminded of the negative stereotypes involving women's math and visual processing ability failed to improve at this search task, while women who were not reminded of the stereotype got faster with practice. When participants were later asked to choose which of two colored squares, imprinted with irrelevant Chinese characters, was more saturated, those in the control group were slower to respond when one of the characters had been a target. However, those trained under stereotype threat showed no such effect, indicating that they had not learned to automatically attend to a target. It’s suggested that the women in the stereotype threat group tried too hard to overcome the negative stereotype, expending more effort but in an unproductive manner.

There are two problems here, it seems. The first is that people under stereotype threat have more invested in disproving the stereotype, and their efforts may be counterproductive. The second, that they are distracted by the stereotype (which uses up some of their precious working memory).

Reference: 

[1686] Rydell, R. J., Shiffrin R. M., Boucher K. L., Van Loo K., & Rydell M. T.
(2010).  Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Exercise helps prevent, improve MCI

January, 2010

Two large studies have found moderate exercise was associated with a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment. A small study suggests women may benefit more than men.

A German study involving nearly 4000 older adults (55+) has found that physical activity significantly reduced the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment over a two-year period. Nearly 14% of those with no physical activity at the start of the study developed cognitive impairment, compared to 6.7% of those with moderate activity, and 5.1% of those with high activity. Moderate activity was defined as less than 3 times a week.

In another report, a study involving 1,324 individuals without dementia found those who reported performing moderate exercise during midlife or late life were significantly less likely to have MCI. Midlife moderate exercise was associated with 39% reduction in the odds of developing MCI, and moderate exercise in late life was associated with a 32% reduction. Light exercise (such as bowling, slow dancing or golfing with a cart) or vigorous exercise (including jogging, skiing and racquetball) were not significantly associated with reduced risk for MCI.

And in a clinical trial involving 33 older adults (55-85) with MCI has found that women who exercised at high intensity levels with an aerobics trainer for 45 to 60 minutes per day, four days per week, significantly improved performance on multiple tests of executive function, compared to those who engaged in low-intensity stretching exercises. The results for men were less significant: high-intensity aerobics was associated only with improved performance on one cognitive task, Trail-making test B, a test of visual attention and task-switching.

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