Before moving to Los Angeles to attend the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute’s (INI) Master of Science in Neuroimaging and Informatics (NIIN) program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Jonathan Vanhoecke already had conducted neuroscience research in Belgium, the United Kingdom (at University College London) and France (at Sorbonne University).

A native of Ghent, Belgium, Vanhoecke spent the past year at USC, completing the INI’s one-year master’s degree program, where he developed additional expertise in neuroimaging techniques, data science and brain structure and function. His studies were supported by the Belgian American Education Foundation.

While completing the program, he also conducted research with Jamie Feusner, MD, a professor at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, with support from the organization Vocatio to explore the underlying neurobiology present in transgender individuals. Specifically, Vanhoecke is analyzing data using diffusion tensor imaging to assess sexual dimorphisms in a specific part of the brain, the inferior fronto-occipital fascisculus, by comparing persons with gender dysphoria to cisgender volunteers.

“Little is known about the neurocorrelates of gender dysphoria, and it’s important to understand sexual dimorphisms in the brain to better monitor the effects of hormone treatment, clinical outcomes and general quality of life,” Vanhoecke said.

In April, Vanhoecke attended the third biennial conference of the European Professional Association for Transgender Health in Rome. He says a major takeaway is the importance of collaboration between psychologists, psychiatrists, sexologists, endocrinologists and other specialists in gender health care in order to obtain optimal insights into the challenges and needs of transgender individuals.

Vanhoecke now plans to partner with INI Associate Director Paul Thompson, PhD, professor of ophthalmology, neurology, psychiatry and the behavioral sciences, radiology and engineering at the Keck School, to further explore the effects of sex differences in cisgender people on brain diseases such as autism spectrum disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and to investigate whether these sex differences in brain structure relate to the gender identity or the sex assigned at birth in transgender people.

“Jonathan’s wide-ranging interests in neuroimaging — which span data collection to rigorous mathematical analysis to the interpretation of results — have already taken him to Europe for a major conference on transgender health and have inspired him to conduct his own original research,” said Jack Van Horn, PhD, associate professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School and director of education at the INI. “I expect great things from Jonathan and encourage future students to follow his lead.”

— Zara Greenbaum