Neuroscience and sexual orientation

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Sexual orientation is an enduring pattern of romantic or sexual attraction (or a combination of these) to persons of the opposite sex or gender, the same sex or gender, or to both sexes or more than one gender, or none of the aforementioned at all.[1][2] The ultimate causes and mechanisms of sexual orientation development in humans remain unclear and many theories are speculative and controversial. However, advances in neuroscience explain and illustrate characteristics linked to sexual orientation. Studies have explored structural neural-correlates, functional and/or cognitive relationships, and developmental theories relating to sexual orientation in humans.

Developmental neurobiology[edit]

Many theories concerning the development of sexual orientation involve fetal neural development, with proposed models illustrating prenatal hormone exposure, maternal immunity, and developmental instability. Other proposed factors include genetic control of sexual orientation. No conclusive evidence has been shown that environmental or learned effects are responsible for the development of non-heterosexual orientation.[3]

As of 2005, sexual dimorphisms in the brain and behavior among vertebrates were accounted for by the influence of gonadal steroidal androgens as demonstrated in animal models over the prior few decades. The prenatal androgen model of homosexuality describes the neuro-developmental effects of fetal exposure to these hormones.[3] In 1985, Geschwind and Galaburda proposed that homosexual men are exposed to high androgen levels early in development and proposed that temporal and local variations in androgen exposure to a fetus's developing brain is a factor in the pathways determining homosexuality.[3] This led scientists to look for somatic markers for prenatal hormonal exposure that could be easily, and non-invasively, explored in otherwise endocrinologically normal populations. Various somatic markers (including 2D:4D finger ratios, auditory evoked potentials, fingerprint patterns and eye-blink patterns) have since been found to show variation based on sexual orientation in healthy adult individuals.[3]

Other evidence supporting the role of testosterone and prenatal hormones in sexual orientation development include observations of male subjects with cloacal exstrophy who were sex-assigned as female during birth only later to declare themselves male. This supports the theory that the prenatal testosterone surge is crucial for gender identity development. Additionally, females whose mothers were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) during pregnancy show higher rates of bi- and homosexuality.[4]

Variations in the hypothalamus may have some influence on sexual orientation. Studies show that factors such as cell number and size of various nuclei in the hypothalamus may impact ones sexual orientation. [5]

Research directions[edit]

As of 2005, research directions included:[3]

  • finding markers for sex steroid levels in the brains of fetuses that highlight features of early neuro-development leading to certain sexual orientations
  • determine the precise neural circuitry underlying direction of sexual preference
  • use animal models to explore genetic and developmental factors that influence sexual orientation
  • further population studies, genetic studies, and serological markers to clarify and definitively determine the effect of maternal immunity
  • neuroimaging studies to quantify sexual-orientation-related differences in structure and function in vivo
  • neurochemical studies to investigate the roles of sex steroids upon neural circuitry involved in sexual attraction

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Sexual orientation, homosexuality and bisexuality". American Psychological Association. Archived from the original on August 8, 2013. Retrieved August 10, 2013.
  2. ^ "Sexual Orientation". American Psychiatric Association. Archived from the original on July 22, 2011. Retrieved January 1, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e Rahman, Q (2005). "The neurodevelopment of human sexual orientation". Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 29 (7): 1057–66. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.002. PMID 16143171.
  4. ^ Swaab DF (December 2004). "Sexual differentiation of the human brain: relevance for gender identity, transsexualism and sexual orientation". Gynecological Endocrinology. 19 (6): 301–12. doi:10.1080/09513590400018231. PMID 15724806.
  5. ^ Swaab, DF, Gooren LJ, Hofman, MA (October 2010). "Brain research, gender and sexual orientation,Pub Med.