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Men Are Better Navigators Than Women: Are Sex Hormones The Reason?

First Posted: Dec 07, 2015 11:45 AM EST
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Men seem to have a better sense of direction than women, according to a recent study.

Researchers at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) decided to see what would happen if they administered testosterone to women and how this might affect their performance in a virtual environment. Though men performed wayfinding tasks better through various virtual environments--better orienting themselves with the space and taking more shortcuts to reach their destination faster--when female participants received a drop of testosterone under their tongue, several were able to better orient themselves.

"In ancient times, men were hunters and women were gatherers. Therefore, our brains probably evolved differently," Carl Pintzka, a medical doctor and PhD candidate at NTNU's Department of Neuroscience, said in a news release. "For instance, other researchers have documented that women are better at finding objects locally than men. In simple terms, women are faster at finding things in the house, and men are faster at finding the house."

During the study, researchers used an MRI scanner to see whether there are any differences in brain activity when men and women orient themselves. With the help of 3D goggles and a joystick, participants had to orient themselves in a very large virtual maze while researchers continued to record images of their brains. Eighteen men and 18 women were involved in the study, which lasted an hour. Each participant also received 30 seconds for a total of 45 navigation tasks.

Overall, researchers found that men completed 50 percent more of the tasks than women. fMRI images of their brains also showed that men used their hippocampus more, whereas women used their frontal areas to a greater extent. Researchers noted that men and women carry different navigational strategies that may explain this.

"If they're going to the Student Society building in Trondheim, for example, men usually go in the general direction where it's located. Women usually orient themselves along a route to get there, for example, 'go past the hairdresser and then up the street and turn right after the store'," Pintzka said.

After the first portion of the study, researchers gave women some testosterone before the having them go through the virtual puzzles. From there, a new group of 42 women were divided into two groups. Twenty-one of the women received a placebo and 21 received a drop of testosterone under their tongue.

Though researchers hoped that the testoerone would help women solve more tasks in the maze, this was not the task. However, it did improve their knowledge of the maze layout and researchers found that the women also used their hippocampus more--which is typically used more by men in navigating. 

As losing your sense of direction can be one of the first symptoms in Alzheimer's disease, researchers discussed the gender differences specific to brain diseases. "Almost all brain-related diseases are different in men and women, either in the number of affected individuals or in severity. Therefore, something is likely protecting or harming people of one sex. Since we know that twice as many women as men are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, there might be something related to sex hormones that is harmful," concluded Pintzka.

The study is published in the journal Behavioral Brain Research.

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