The New Scientist reports a potentially groundbreaking study for the early identification of transsexuals. The new study, about to be published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, identifies a new method for identifying transsexuals before puberty and before hormone treatment by a newly discovered brain scan technique.
Antonio Guillamon‘s team at the National University of Distance Education in Madrid, Spain, think they have found a better way to spot a transsexual brain. In a study due to be published next month, the team ran MRI scans on the brains of 18 female-to-male transsexual people who’d had no treatment and compared them with those of 24 males and 19 females.
They found significant differences between male and female brains in four regions of white matter – and the female-to-male transsexual people had white matter in these regions that resembled a male brain (Journal of Psychiatric Research, DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.05.006). “It’s the first time it has been shown that the brains of female-to-male transsexual people are masculinised,” Guillamon says.
While it’s far too early to blow this out of proportion, the potential clinical implications are significant.
If the new technique is verified the identification of transsexualism would no longer need to remain solely in the variable hands of psychologists, who currently take from months to years to arrive at such diagnoses, and even then allow great latitude for their own individual interpretations. Quicker diagnosis means quicker access to treatment which means much greater overall health – mental and physical – for affected patients.
What’s more this study may prove the tip of the iceberg, allowing clinical identification of a host of related (or perhaps even unrelated) conditions. However it wouldn’t be wise to see this as a panacea, as the lead researcher notes:
Guillamon thinks such scans may not help in all cases. “Research has shown that white matter matures during the first 20 to 30 years of life,” he says. “People may experience early or late onset of transsexuality and we don’t know what causes this difference.”
In other words don’t look at this as a “catch all,” or “litmus test,” but rather one more tool by which science is building toward better understanding and treatment of this previously mysterious condition. Even if some of us (I’m looking at myself here) are pretty excited by the potential of this particular tool.