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Sex change hormonal treatments alter brain chemistry

Sex change hormonal treatments alter brain chemistry

Hormonal treatments administered as part of the procedures for sex reassignment have well-known and well-documented effects on the secondary sexual characteristics of the adult body, shifting a recipient’s physical appearance to that of the opposite sex. New research indicates that these hormonal treatments also alter brain chemistry.

Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna, led by senior authors Dr. Siegfried Kasper and Dr. Rupert Lanzenberger, show that administration of the male hormone testosterone in female-to-male transsexuals raises brain levels of SERT, the protein that transports the chemical messenger serotonin into nerve cells.

In contrast, male-to-female transsexuals who received a testosterone blocker and the female hormone estrogen showed decreased levels of this protein in the brain.

SERT plays an important role in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, as many common antidepressants, such as Prozac, block its activity by inhibiting serotonin reuptake. In addition, some genetics studies have suggested that higher levels of serotonin transporter may increase resilience to stress and reduce risk for stress and mood disorders.

Because women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression as men, these changes in the levels of SERT are consistent with the increased risk for mood and anxiety disorders in females relative to males.

“These results may explain why testosterone improves symptoms in some forms of depression. Our study also increases our knowledge on the role of sex hormones in sex differences of mood disorders,” Lanzenberger added.

Overall, these findings suggest that when people switch from female to male, their biology changes in a way that is consistent with a reduced risk for mood and anxiety disorders, whereas the reverse happens when males switch to females.

“This study is the first to show changes in brain chemistry associated with the hormonal treatments administered in the sex change process,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

“It provides new insight into the ways that the hormonal differences between men and women influence mood and the risk for mood disorders.”

Kranz, G., Wadsak, W., Kaufmann, U., Savli, M., Baldinger, P., Gryglewski, G., Haeusler, D., Spies, M., Mitterhauser, M., Kasper, S., & Lanzenberger, R. (2015). High-Dose Testosterone Treatment Increases Serotonin Transporter Binding in Transgender People Biological Psychiatry, 78 (8), 525-533 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.09.010

2 responses

  1. Nana Abena Gyapomaah-Dapaah

    The sex hormone (androgens and estrogens) produces differences between male and female anatomies; therefore it is conceivable that a change in any sex related hormone will alter the brain chemistry. Depression and other noted mood problems are treated by balancing dopamine, Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (GABA), and Serotonin chemicals in the brain. Dopamine is a precursor of testosterone which in turn produces SERT for the smooth transfer of Serotonin and GABA into the nerve cells. The process alters the brain chemistry in order to cure the brain issue as hand. Also the brain is continuously working to adapt to the effects of physiological changes. For instance, a man or woman who lost the right arm through an accident will be able to retrain the brain to use the left hand tasks he/she would have otherwise used the right hand.
    In the same token, a rise in the testosterone hormone in a transgender body will unleash an aggressive behavior typically displayed by males. This aggressive mood and emotions is produced by the brain therefore it is likely that the brain changed in order to produce that aggressive image.


    October 9, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    • While I disagree with the assumption that androgens lead to aggressive mood, I do agree with the bulk of your assessment.

      I think the remarkable thing that the study is pointing out is that the hormones can have changes on established and developed parts of the brain. It is also a good way to look for ways to end depression and could also help people transitioning be prepared for any sort of mental health complications that may come.

      Overall, knowing that depression could follow (and why) from transitioning will help keep people from falling through the cracks and mean they will actually be getting help so they can be happy.


      October 11, 2015 at 12:38 pm

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