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Med Hypotheses. 2007;69(5):1001-3. Epub 2007 Apr 8.

Occurrence of phantom genitalia after gender reassignment surgery.

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Center for Brain and Cognition, UCSD, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA.


Transsexuals are individuals who identify as a member of the gender opposite to that which they are born. Many transsexuals report that they have always had a feeling of a mismatch between their inner gender-based "body image" and that of their body's actual physical form. Often transsexuals undergo gender reassignment surgery to convert their bodies to the sex they feel they should have been born. The vivid sensation of still having a limb although it has been amputated, a phantom limb, was first described by Weir Mitchell over a century ago. The same phenomenon is also occurs after amputation of the penis or a breast. Around 60% of men who have had to have their penis amputated for cancer will experience a phantom penis. It has recently been shown that a significant factor in these phantom sensations is "cross-activation" between the de-afferented cortex and surrounding areas. Despite this it also known that much of our body image is innately "hard-wired" into our brains; congenitally limbless patients can still experience phantom sensations. We hypothesise that, perhaps due to a dissociation during embryological development, the brains of transsexuals are "hard-wired" in manner, which is opposite to that of their biological sex. We go on to predict that male-to-female transsexuals will be much less likely to experience a phantom penis than a "normal" man who has had his penis amputated for another reason. The same will be true of female-to-male transsexuals who have had breast removal surgery. We also predict that some female-to-male transsexuals will have a phantom penis even although there is not one physically there. We believe that this is an easily testable hypothesis, which, if correct, would offer insights into both the basis of transsexuality and provide farther evidence that we have a gender specific body image, with a strong innate component that is "hard-wired" into our brains. This would furnish us with a better understanding the mechanism by which nature and nurture interact to link the brain-based internal body image with external sexual morphology. We would emphasise here that transsexuality should not be regarded as "abnormal" but instead as part of the spectrum of human behaviour.

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