Monday, February 14, 2011

Testosterone and empathy might not be best buds

Via Dr. X's Free Associations:
Research Shows Testosterone Reduces Mind Reading Abilities, Empathy Levels 
New research conducted by scientists from the Utrecht and Cambridge Universities has found that an administration of testosterone under the tongue in volunteers can negatively affect a person’s ability to “mind read”, an indication of empathy. Moreover, the effects of testosterone administration are predicted by the 2D:4D foetal marker of prenatal testosterone.
The study findings bear important implications for the androgen theory of autism, as testosteron is an androgen, and confirms previous rodent research findings showing that testosterone in early brain development organizes the activation of the hormone in later life. The study was designed by Professor Jack van Honk at the University of Utrecht and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge, and was conducted in Utrecht.
Simon Baron-Cohen authored The Essential Difference, in which he proposed that autism could be characterized as having an "extreme male brain" due to the emphasis of people on the autism spectrum on systematizing rather than empathizing.  Obviously by that he doesn't mean that autism is male-specific, though it does occur in males with a much higher frequency (about 4:1, from what I have read), but that it represents an extreme example of the traits that more often typify the brain of a man than a woman.   So this study would appear to support his theory, although it has come under fire from psychologists such as Cordelia Fine, who accuses Baron-Cohen of misrepresenting the findings of experimental research on the subject.  I haven't read her book Delusions of Gender yet to see how well these accusations hold up, but am looking forward to it as it comes recommended by Uta Frith,* commonly regarded as one of the pre-eminent authorities on autism.  

Amanda Marcotte expresses some of her reservations about Baron-Cohen's work toward the end of this talk, worth watching in full:

*When Uta was a visiting scholar at Aarhus I talked with her about doing a study to examine the relationship between autism and religious belief (or lack thereof), but unfortunately didn't manage to get it off the ground before it was time for me to head back to the states.  That's still a project that definitely needs to be done.

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