Gender differences in reward-related decision processing under stress

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Recent research indicates gender differences in the impact of stress on decision behavior, but little is known about the brain mechanisms involved in these gender-specific stress effects. The current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine whether induced stress resulted in gender-specific patterns of brain activation during a decision task involving monetary reward. Specifically, we manipulated physiological stress levels using a cold pressor task, prior to a risky decision making task. Healthy men (n = 24, 12 stressed) and women (n = 23, 11 stressed) completed the decision task after either cold pressor stress or a control task during the period of cortisol response to the cold pressor. Gender differences in behavior were present in stressed participants but not controls, such that stress led to greater reward collection and faster decision speed in males but less reward collection and slower decision speed in females. A gender-by-stress interaction was observed for the dorsal striatum and anterior insula. With cold stress, activation in these regions was increased in males but decreased in females. The findings of this study indicate that the impact of stress on reward-related decision processing differs depending on gender.

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