Human Adult Neurogendering: Brain Plasticity and Sex Difference Research

ABSTRACT: This paper analyses the extent to which the growing research on neuroplasticity in the 20th century related to neuroscientific investigations into sex differences. In the late 19th century, William James formulated the notion of a malleable brain that is responsive to exterior influences. At the same time, however, the influential work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal led to an adoption of the view of a static adult brain. The latter concept shaped neuroscientific theories for the next century: the idea of human adult neurogenesis became a neuroscientific fact only around the turn of the 21st century. Parallel to the slow stabilization of the various concepts of brain plasticity, the number of neuroscientific investigations into sex differences increased significantly. Most of these studies reported functional or structural differences between female and male brains and asserted their congenital nature. Focusing on the second half of the 20th century, this paper will analyze the relationship between plasticity research, neuroscientific investigations into sex differences, and the communication of related findings to a broader public. Drawing on clinical and cognitive neuroscientific publications as well as on personal papers of 20th-century neuroscientists, I will address the following questions: Was the idea of innate sex differences resistant to the concept of neuroplasticity? How far did the social female/male dichotomy influence how neuroscientists approached sex/gender? How, if at all, did neuroscientists embrace the idea that gender might leave its material marks on initially unsexed human brains?


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Individual/small group
Graduate students
Undergraduate students
Help description
As a history of science Ph.D. student, I am looking for students who are familiar with _web scraping_ / _text mining_ / _data visualization_ software, and are willing to collaborate with me on a 20th-century-history of neuroscience project throughout the second half of the summer 2014 and/or during the 2014 fall semester. I won't be able to pay money, but I am really interested in making this a project from which both parties could benefit, i.e., I would be more than happy to make this part of a student's thesis, and this project will result in the publication of a co-authored scholarly paper. More detail on the research content is given in the abstract above. I am working with three types of sources: a Penn neuropsychiatrist's personal papers (can do this on my own), historical works on the development of the neurosciences in the 20th century (don't need help here either), and several _ thousands of articles_ from the last six decades of neuroscientific research (accessible through online databases such as PubMed, For this last source type, I need help in feeding these articles or their metadata into a computer program and in mining them without reading them. These articles will belong to two different subfields within the neurosciences: sex difference research in the brain and brain plasticity research. The goal of mining these articles is to find out to what extent, if at all, the two subfields communicated with each other since the 1960s. This (non-)overlap could be presented simply in the form of _publication networks_, with graphs to be filtered by publication key words, year, and authors, but I could also imagine adding a _spatial dimension_ representing research locations, or conference venues where the respective researchers did (or did not) meet and engage with each other. Possible tools include Neatline and Omeka, but I am very open to more sophisticated, i.e., custom, methods. It entirely depends on the interest and resources of the person(s) who would be interested in pursuing this project together. The _schedule is flexible_ until November, when I have to present preliminary results at a History of Science conference.
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