Give a man and a woman the same task, and each may use their brain differently to do it.

That’s the finding of researchers at Canada’s University of Alberta.

Their study, published online in NeuroImage, focused on quick tests of mental skills -- not solving thorny problems from daily life.

Brain scans taken during the tests showed some different brain activity patterns in men and women. Those differences didn’t always affect performance, the study shows.

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Men’s Brain, Women’s Brain

The researchers included Emily Bell, a graduate student in psychiatry. Participants were 33 healthy people (23 men and 10 women).

In one test, participants tapped their index fingers as quickly as possible in a short amount of time. In another, they were shown a few numbers that they had to quickly recognize among other numbers.

A third test focused on verbal skills. Participants were shown a single letter. Then, they had to think of as many words as possible that start with that letter, working on deadline.

The fourth test checked spatial attention, using simple graphics on a computer screen.

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Brainy Results

“The results jumped out at us,” Bell says in a news release.

“Sometimes males and females would perform the same tasks and show different brain activation, and sometimes they would perform different tasks and show the same brain activation,” she says.

Men performed better on the spatial attention test, but their brain activity patterns didn’t differ from women in that test.

Bigger studies should be done, write Bell and colleagues, noting the small number of participants (and women, in particular). They add that men and women should be studied separately in brain imaging studies.

”We’d like to push forward in this area,” Bell says. “It hasn’t been seen yet how this information can be used to help patients, but more work in this area may lead to that.”

'Large Potential Implications'

Bell’s colleague, psychiatrist Peter Silverstone, MD, also commented in the news release.

“It is widely recognized that there are differences between males and females, but finding that different regions of the brain are activated in men and women in response to the same task has large potential implications for a variety of different clinical situations,” Silverstone says.

Silverstone notes that men and women differ in some psychiatric conditions; depression is twice as common among women, and there are differences in symptoms in some mental illnesses.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Bell, E. NeuroImage, articles in press. News release, University of Alberta.