Metabolic mapping reveals sex-dependent involvement of default mode and salience network in alexithymia

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Alexithymia, a personality construct marked by difficulties in processing one’s emotions, has been linked to the altered activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Although longitudinal studies reported sex differences in alexithymia, what mediates them is not known. To investigate sex-specific associations of alexithymia and neuronal markers, we mapped metabolites in four brain regions involved differentially in emotion processing using a point-resolved spectroscopy MRS sequence in 3 Tesla. Both sexes showed negative correlations between alexithymia and N-acetylaspartate (NAA) in pregenual ACC (pgACC). Women showed a robust negative correlation of the joint measure of glutamate and glutamine (Glx) to NAA in posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), whereas men showed a weak positive association of Glx to NAA in dorsal ACC (dACC). Our results suggest that lowered neuronal integrity in pgACC, a region of the default mode network (DMN), might primarily account for the general difficulties in emotional processing in alexithymia. Association of alexithymia in women extends to another region in the DMN-PCC, while in men a region in the salience network (SN) was involved. These observations could be representative of sex specific regulation strategies that include diminished internal evaluation of feelings in women and cognitive emotion suppression in men.

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