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Tuesday, 21 March, 2000, 13:13 GMT
Sexes take different neural directions
Men and women use different parts of the brain to find their way about, scientists report.

The study is likely to fuel that old argument about whether men or women are better at navigation in the car and reading maps.

Dr Matthias Riepe and colleagues at the University of Ulm in Germany asked 12 men and 12 women to navigate their way out of a virtual reality maze displayed on a computer.

The volunteers pushed buttons to move their virtual selves left, right or ahead. In the real world, this might be like trying to find a specific place in an unfamiliar city, said Dr Riepe.

Brain activity

The men got out of the maze in an average of two minutes and 22 seconds. The average for the women was three minutes and 16 seconds.

The outcome fits with previous studies in animals and people that suggest males navigate better in an unfamiliar environment.

As they were trying to escape the maze, the volunteers had their brain activity monitored by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Although some brain areas were equally activated in men and women, there were several differences.

Men showed activation of the left hippocampal region, an area deep in the brain previously shown to be involved in navigation tasks. Women, on the other hand, showed activation of the parietal and right prefrontal cortices, an outer region of the brain.

Landmarks and geometry

This is not the first evidence of brain differences between men and women, but it is one of the first to show a clear relationship between brain activation and behavioural performance.

Quite why the differences exist is not clear. Previous studies have shown that women seem to rely on landmarks to navigate, while men lean toward using geometry, as one would figure from a map ("The museum should be over that way'').

The women's activity in the cortex might reflect the effort of keeping landmark cues in mind, while the hippocampus activity in the men might be needed for the geometric approach, the German researchers said.

The study could not explore whether the brain differences are learned or biologically programmed. But Dr Riepe says he suspects the latter, because the differences also appear in rats.

The research is reported in Nature Neuroscience.

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