Scientists have discovered a key difference in the way male and female brains age: the deepest subcortical structures in the brain appear to age more quickly in men than in women. This may be one reason why men are more susceptible to neurological diseases such as Parkinson's as they get older.
The findings come from a team of neuroscientists working at the University of Szeged in Hungary. They analysed the brain structures of 53 men and 50 women matched together by age, paying particular attention to the subcortical structures: that is, the parts of the brain involved with movement control and emotional processing. They also looked closely at the thalamus, which handles the passing of information between different parts of the brain while we're thinking.
Significantly, although the brains of all participants showed an overall reduction in brain and thalamus volume as they got older, reductions in the size of the caudate nucleus and putamen were only found in the men - both of these areas help to control body movement. What's more, grey matter from all parts of the brain was found to reduce at a quicker rate in males, which may suggest a faster brain ageing process.
Previous research has highlighted several differences between the brains of men and women: male brains are typically larger, for example, though a larger brain doesn't equate to a smarter one. We also know that men are more susceptible to Parkinson's disease, while women are more likely to develop Alzheimer's.
The new research could point to one of the reasons why that is, although we don't exactly know what's happening to cause it - hormonal changes and the brain's reaction to them might be one reason.
"These findings might have important implications for the interpretation of the effects of unalterable factors (i.e. gender and age) in cross-sectional structural MRI studies," explains the study, published in Brain Imaging and Behaviour.
"Furthermore, the volume distribution and changes of subcortical structures have been consistently related to several neuropsychiatric disorders (e.g. Parkinson's disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, etc.). Understanding these changes might yield further insight in the course and prognosis of these disorders."
As is normal after such a telling discovery, further research is now required to back up these findings and understand the causes behind them. Eventually though, the study could lead to better treatments and potentially even cures for the most damaging neurological diseases in men and women.