Bil Browning

Woman transforms gender during epileptic seizure

Filed By Bil Browning | September 09, 2009 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: epilepsy, gender identity, gender transformation, scientific explanation, transgender

This is fascinating. We've had plenty of conversations on the site about gender identity disorder. Brain.jpgWhile sexual orientation was considered a mental condition a few decades ago, that hasn't changed for transgender folks. As with sexual orientation, scientists have been searching for clues to the age old question of "Is it a choice?"

There's been a lot of arguments presented on whether or not this is a good way to frame trans issues (access to medical care, etc), but one of the things I've not heard much about is the why scientists and doctors consider it a mental condition. Which makes this article about a woman who feels she becomes a man during epileptic seizures all the more interesting.

UPDATE: After a very nicely e-mail from Dr. Burkhard Kasper, I've changed the headline from "Woman transforms gender after epileptic seizure" to "Woman transforms gender during epileptic seizure" to more accurately reflect the situation. Thanks for e-mailing Dr. Kasper.

In a paper in press at Epilepsy & Behavior, Burkhard Kasper and colleagues at the University of Erlangen-N├╝rnberg in Germany report that the 37-year-old woman's momentary gender transformations include the sense that her voice is deeper and her arms have become hairier. On one occasion, she told the researchers, a female friend was in the room as a seizure came on, and she had the sense that her friend had become a male as well.
Other than some symptoms of depression and anxiety, which responded well to treatment, the woman had no history of psychiatric illness, and she never experienced the transformation in the absence of seizures. Delusional feelings of gender transformation have been previously reported in people with schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses, the authors write, but not to their knowledge in a person with epilepsy.

The authors wisely avoid the conclusion that there's a sexual identity center in the right amygdala, says Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at New York University. If that were the case, one might expect that patients who've undergone surgical removal of the amygdala to treat intractable epilepsy would experience similar symptoms. But there have been no such reports, Devinsky says.

Read the whole article for the in-depth explanation the scientists posit.

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with all due respect to your probable accidental framing of this in this way:

"We've had plenty of conversations on the site about gender identity disorder"

most T people of all types do not see themselves as disordered any more then Gay men did before 1974's dsm manual "definition" change.

(ie; gay was no longer defined as a disorder or pathology by the APA)
just FYI.....

I have heard of seizures causing hair loss, hair color change, changing food habits and tastes so I wouldn't be to amazed to hear about this as well. Who knows the brain very well really.

For awareness, the reason it is currently classified as a metal condition is because it causes mental suffering.

Read it for yourself:

Thanks Dyssonance. I appreciate the link. That's really helpful.

Thanks Dyssonance from me also...

Medical and Psychological professional associations policies are changing publicly on the issue of whether GID should be in the DSM-IV.
More and more the position is being clarified that "disorder" stems from the effects of stigmatization, discrimination, threat of violence etc... Sara VanWormer with the Michigan Project fo Informed Public Policy (MPIPP) and Dr. Judith Kovach from the Michigan Pschological Assoc. (MPA) asembled a great deal of empirical data fo me as we pushed for revisions to the Non-Discrimination Ordinance here in Kalamazoo before it went a second city commision vote.
Find below two useful links:


You must read anything by Oliver Sacks on the subject of seizures and the changes they cause. I particularly recommend Musicophilia or An Anthropologist on Mars.

As a lifelong epileptic myself, I frankly don't know what to make of this. It certainly doesn't fit my own experience, but who knows? As noted above, the brain and how it works are still not that well understood.

In my experience, I've done all kinds of odd things when I've had a seizure. I never have conscious memory of it afterwards, though. I "go away" and then come back to consciousness. When it's over the effect is much like you'd imagine if you somehow just awoke from a deep sleep fully dressed and standing up and just as disconcerting.

Just because this is how it is for me doesn't mean this story is any less possible or valid. Yet, at the same time, my gender ID has remained consistent since the age of five, when I first began having seizures and was diagnosed as an epileptic.

Is there a connection? I haven't a clue and I doubt people far smarter and far more educated on this topic than I have much of a clue either. Nonetheless, it is interesting.

It suggests to me that once there's finally at least a reasonably accurate census of the transgender population of this country, the comparison and correlation of those statistics with the incidence of epilepsy might possibly lead to some interesting findings.