Stanford Medicine study identifies distinct brain organization patterns in women and men

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Using explainable AI, Menon and his team identified the brain networks that were most important to the model’s judgment of whether a brain scan came from a man or a woman. They found the model was most often looking to the default mode network, striatum, and the limbic network to make the call.

The team then wondered if they could create another model that could predict how well participants would do on certain cognitive tasks based on functional brain features that differ between women and men. They developed sex-specific models of cognitive abilities: One model effectively predicted cognitive performance in men but not women, and another in women but not men. The findings indicate that functional brain characteristics varying between sexes have significant behavioral implications.

“These models worked really well because we successfully separated brain patterns between sexes,” Menon said. “That tells me that overlooking sex differences in brain organization could lead us to miss key factors underlying neuropsychiatric disorders.”

While the team applied their deep neural network model to questions about sex differences, Menon says the model can be applied to answer questions regarding how just about any aspect of brain connectivity might relate to any kind of cognitive ability or behavior. He and his team plan to make their model publicly available for any researcher to use.

“Our AI models have very broad applicability,” Menon said. “A researcher could use our models to look for brain differences linked to learning impairments or social functioning differences, for instance — aspects we are keen to understand better to aid individuals in adapting to and surmounting these challenges.”

The research was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (grants MH084164, EB022907, MH121069, K25HD074652 and AG072114), the Transdisciplinary Initiative, the Uytengsu-Hamilton 22q11 Programs, the Stanford Maternal and Child Health Research Institute, and the NARSAD Young Investigator Award.

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