Sex differences in emotional perception: Meta analysis of divergent activation

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Abstract

Behavioral and physiological sex differences in emotional reactivity are well documented, yet comparatively few neural differences have been identified. Here we apply quantitative activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis across functional brain imaging studies that each reported clusters of activity differentiating men and women as they participated in emotion-evoking tasks in the visual modality. This approach requires the experimental paradigm to be balanced across the sexes, and thus may provide greater clarity than previous efforts. Results across 56 emotion-eliciting studies (n=1907) reveal distinct activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, frontal pole, and mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus in men relative to women. Women show distinct activation in bilateral amygdala, hippocampus, and regions of the dorsal midbrain including the periaqueductal gray/superior colliculus and locus coeruleus. While some clusters are consistent with prevailing perspectives on the foundations of sex differences in emotional reactivity, thalamic and brainstem regions have not previously been highlighted as sexually divergent. These data strongly support the need to include sex as a factor in functional brain imaging studies of emotion, and to extend our investigative focus beyond the cortex.

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