The Differences Between Males and Females with Brain Injuries
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What are the differences between males and females?
This is an age-old question that no person has ever been able to truly figure out. What makes a male and a female so different from one another? Genetically, males and females are 98.5% identical. In fact, we even share the same hormones and critical organs (brain, heart, lungs, stomach, etc.). Fundamentally, it seems males and females are more alike than we think?
Meet Odette Harris
Well Odette Harris, a professor of neurosurgery and brain trauma expert, began to explore that very question through her research. Harris never intended to bring sex differences into her line of work because it was believed that no matter the body, a brain is still fundamentally a brain. While analyzing data from the Department of Veteran Affairs she realized that there is in fact a huge sex difference in the aftermath of traumatic brain injuries, and nobody is exploring it.
The same type of injury in both males and females has a drastic difference in recovery based on a person’s sex.
Photo of Odette Harris
Through her studies, Harris, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, found some insane trends. It was found that females with some form of brain injury trauma and other possible severe injuries saw vastly higher rates of substance abuse, depression, memory problems, and even homelessness along with a vast array of other troubles, than males with the same type of brain trauma and injuries.
Photo source here.
These findings are shattering. Even Harris was hesitant with sharing her findings and evidence. “I was concerned that this information could be weaponized or misconstrued. We’re not saying women don’t do as well as men, or women aren’t as strong as men. That’s not it at all,” -Harris. What Harris is really trying to say is that males and females experience brain injuries differently, therefore they need to be treated differently. This is a challenge in the brain injury world that needs to be recognized widely and seen to, immediately.
To go about exploring this topic Harris teamed up with colleagues, including Maheen Adamson, PhD, a clinical scientific research director for Rehabilitation Services at the VA Palo Alto and a clinical associate professor of neurosurgery at
Stanford School of Medicine. To get a total understanding of the nature of brain trauma in females, they must dive into the physiological, psychological, and social aspects that could potentially affect an individual.
Photo of Maheen Adamson.
Photo source here.
Using data collected from neuropsychological testing, brain imaging, and surveys, Harris, and colleagues conducted a match analysis between male and female patients. Simply put, they matched individuals on factors such as age, the severity of the injury, time since injury. Essentially, they were matched on almost everything except their sex. Based on this experiment they found that memory problems are way more common in females who have experienced multiple traumatic brain injuries compared to males who have also experienced them.
Harris’ studies have found several key differences in the results of traumatic brain injuries for males and females. Following brain injuries, compared to their male counter parts, females:
- are four times more likely to use and abuse drugs
- are seven times more likely to be homeless
- are three times more likely to be unemployed
- are 30% more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- experience a greater rate of vertigo (feeling of the world spinning or moving around an individual)
Photo source here.
The ultimate goal of Harris’ research is to find the best way to set females up for success after brain trauma. The recovery process for females is not the same as it is for males. Increasing education and skills training may be a good solution for males with TBIs, but that may not be the case for females.
Quote from Odette Harris on the goal of her studies.
A Physical Trait
Surveys and analyses of health records by Stanford research and others continue to find major differences in how males and females experience severe brain injuries. On top of that, researchers have found physical evidence that suggests there is a connection between a physical trait of a females’ brain and the likelihood to experience a different array of post-brain injury symptoms than males do. That physical trait is the thinning of part of the cortex, the thin outer layer of the brain’s cerebrum.
Picture of cortical thickness over time.
In 2016, Maheen Adamson investigated the differences in the impact of brain injury trauma on males and females. Using imaging layering and MRI scans to measure the thickness of the cortex on 70 veteran patients (42 males and 28 females), results found that all patients suffered from cortical thinning, yet females had it significantly worse. The brains of the females had more patches of thinning, especially in the regions that regulate emotions and decision-making.
Photo of the different brain regions and the roles they play.
Another staggering statistic that Harris and colleagues are trying to combat is the fact that females only account for around 15% of the traumatic brain injury cases studied, while the studies investigating TBIs consist of data exclusively from males. Researchers are only studying males with TBIs and then use findings to try and treat males and females with TBIs. That is a fundamental flaw that today’s research is trying to correct.
We are seeing a direct shift towards looking at the differences between male and female traumatic brain injuries. This shift will enable researchers to improve outcomes and ensure equal and fair care for all people with brain trauma.
No two brain injuries are ever alike. That is why Sallie® is here. No matter if you are male or female, no matter what kind of brain trauma you or someone you know has gone through, and no matter the condition you or someone you know is in, Sallie® can help. Sallie® aims to assist individuals, by being an incredibly easy to use, and free, symptom tracking dashboard. The robust data collection approach includes a multitude of varying symptoms for our users to track. By using Sallie® individuals are contributing data to the TBI world and helping combat the issue about how most of the existing data being studied and collected is primarily from males. So, whether you are male or female with any type of brain trauma Power of Patients Sallie® is made for you.
Register for Sallie® here.
Armitage, Hanae. “Why Women Have a Tougher Time Recovering from Brain Injuries.” Stanford Medicine, Stanford Medicine, https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2021issue2/brain-injury-recovery-more-difficult-women-than-men.html.
Women Vs. Brain Injury by Brain Injury Professional. “Traumatic Brain Injury among Female Veterans.” Issuu, From Women Vs. Brain Injury by Brain Injury Professional, 17 Sept. 2020, https://issuu.com/braininjuryprofessional/docs/bip_september_2020/s/11013338.
Medicine, Stanford. “Publications.” Adamson Lab, https://med.stanford.edu/adamson-lab/PI/ABSPublications.html.
“Odette Harris, MD, MPH.” Odette Harris, MD, MPH's Profile | Stanford Profiles, https://profiles.stanford.edu/odette-harris.