Spies M, Hahn A, Kranz GS, Sladky R, Kaufmann U, Hummer A, Ganger S, Kraus C, Winkler D, Seiger R, Comasco E, Windischberger C, Kasper S, Lanzenberger R
NeuroImage 138 (-) 257-265 [2016-09-00; online 2016-05-26]
Sex-steroid hormones have repeatedly been shown to influence empathy, which is in turn reflected in resting state functional connectivity (rsFC). Cross-sex hormone treatment in transgender individuals provides the opportunity to examine changes to rsFC over gender transition. We aimed to investigate whether sex-steroid hormones influence rsFC patterns related to unique aspects of empathy, namely emotion recognition and description as well as emotional contagion. RsFC data was acquired with 7Tesla magnetic resonance imaging in 24 male-to-female (MtF) and 33 female-to-male (FtM) transgender individuals before treatment, in addition to 33 male- and 44 female controls. Of the transgender participants, 15 MtF and 20 FtM were additionally assessed after 4 weeks and 4 months of treatment. Empathy scores were acquired at the same time-points. MtF differed at baseline from all other groups and assimilated over the course of gender transition in a rsFC network around the supramarginal gyrus, a region central to interpersonal emotion processing. While changes to sex-steroid hormones did not correlate with rsFC in this network, a sex hormone independent association between empathy scores and rsFC was found. Our results underline that 1) MtF transgender persons demonstrate unique rsFC patterns in a network related to empathy and 2) changes within this network over gender transition are likely related to changes in emotion recognition, -description, and -contagion, and are sex-steroid hormone independent.