Study Finds Unusual Brain Connectivity in Transgender Men

Clara Barnhurst

A recent study [abstract only] shows heightened brain activity in transgender men when seeing images of themselves morphed into a more male state. An international team of neuroscientists and psychologists exposed transgender men to images and other tests while undergoing an fMRI. Participants displayed heightened brain activity compared to the control groups of cisgender men and women, who showed heightened activity when seeing themselves in a form matching their assigned gender.

The project was led by Jamie Feusner at the University of California, Los Angeles with the cooperation of a gender clinic at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Twenty-seven transgender men diagnosed with gender dysphoria had their brains scanned along with twenty-seven cisgender male controls and twenty-seven cisgender female controls. The transgender male group had not received any hormone or surgical treatment at that time and had no other psychological conditions on record. The unusual connectivity was unique to the transgender group; the control groups showed consistent activity.

(Photo: Feusner at al, 2017 – via BPS Research Digest)

The importance of this study is it helps illustrate specifically how human brains respond to the self. When exposed to imagery aligned with the participant’s identity, activity is heightened; connectivity within the brain increases. There are also differences in the kind of connectivity between the transgender participants and the cisgender control groups. The study doesn’t indicate whether the brain activity is reflective as opposed to reflexive.

According to the British Psychological Society’s report, the researchers are careful to say that there is no support for transgender men having brain activity typical of cisgender men and another study with transgender women would be necessary to establish whether this is a general trend with transgender people. At present, there is no evidence to suggest that trans men – or any non-conforming gender group – have brain activity consistent with cisgender people of the appropriate gender.


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