PTSD’s Sex-Dependent Effect on the Brain

Rebecca Moragne, TuftScope Research-Highlights Editor

The human brain is one of the most complex things on Earth. But progressively scientists are understanding the intricate details. In the insula, the part of the brain that processes emotion and empathy, trauma produces structural changes in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients dependent on whether an individual is female or male. This information is a recent discovery by scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine who focus on preventing disease in the healthy and improving treatment in the ill. Previous research showed that between those who experience trauma, girls are more likely to develop PTSD than boys. And this current research provides structural brain changes as evidence to why.

The Stanford University research team completed brain MRI scans in 59 participants aged 9 to 17. Half of them had experienced trauma while the other half had not and thus composed the control group. The results showed that males who had experienced trauma had a larger volume and surface area of the anterior circular sulcus, a part of the insula, than girls who had experienced trauma and those in the control. And the females who had experienced trauma had a smaller volume and surface area of the anterior circular sulcus than males who had experienced trauma and all those in the control. The scientists found no insula difference between sexes in the control.

            This evidence of PTSD’s effect on the brain shows that the insula is involved in the development of PTSD. Some people who experience trauma develop PTSD and others do not, and this difference may be related to a volume and surface area change in the anterior circular sulcus. Understanding the changes that occur in those who do develop the disease, may aid in both PTSD prevention and treatment. Megan Klabunde, PhD, the study’s lead author states, “Our findings suggest it is possible that boys and girls could exhibit trauma symptoms and that they might benefit from different approaches to treatment.” And all of the study’s authors state, “By better understanding sex differences in a region of the brain involved in emotion processing, clinicians and scientists may be able to develop sex-specific trauma and emotion dysregulation treatments.”


Stanford University Medical Center. (2016, November 11). Traumatic stress changes brains of boys, girls differently. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 13, 2016 from