Research Article: Sex differences in default mode and dorsal attention network engagement

Date Published: June 14, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Kelly M. Dumais, Sergey Chernyak, Lisa D. Nickerson, Amy C. Janes, Kewei Chen.


Focusing on sex differences is necessary to fully understand basic neurobiological processes such as the engagement of large-scale brain networks involved in attention. Prior work suggests that women show enhanced attention during tasks of reward/punishment relative to men. Yet, sex differences in the engagement of neural networks sub serving internal and external focus has been unexplored in regard to reward and punishment. Using data from a large sample (n = 190) of healthy participants from the Human Connectome Project, we investigated sex differences in default mode network (DMN), dorsal attention network (DAN), and frontal parietal network (FPN) activation during exposure to reward and punishment. To determine if sex differences are specific to valenced stimuli, we analyzed network activation during working memory. Results indicate that, relative to men, women have increased suppression of the DMN and greater activation of the DAN during exposure to reward and punishment. Given the relative roles of these networks in internal (DMN) and external (DAN) attention, this pattern of activation suggests that women have enhanced external attention to reward and punishment. In contrast, there were no sex differences in network activation during working memory, indicating that this sex difference is specific to the processing of reward and punishment. These findings suggest a neurobiological explanation for prior work showing women have greater sensitivity to reward/punishment and are more prone to psychiatric disorders characterized by enhanced attention to such stimuli. Furthermore, given the large sample from the Human Connectome Project, the current findings provide general implications for the study of sex as a biological variable in investigation of reward processes.

Partial Text

Brain responses to both reward and punishment have been studied extensively, providing critical insight into normal and pathological brain states [1–4]. However, there has been limited investigation into how biological factors such as sex influence these processes. Such sex differences are likely, as women generally show more behavioral sensitivity to reward and punishment relative to men [5–7]. Neuroimaging investigation of sex differences in reward and punishment processing have largely focused on limbic brain regions typically associated with reward and emotion [8–9]. However, when considering sex differences in reward/punishment, there is evidence suggesting that sex differences exist outside traditional reward function. Specifically, event related potential studies suggest women engage more attentional resources when performing reward/punishment tasks [7, 10]. Such findings suggest that there may be sex differences in the engagement of large scale attentional neural networks during reward and punishment processing.

Our results show that women have a pattern of neural activity indicative of enhanced attention to external valenced stimuli. Specifically, during the processing of reward and punishment, but not working memory, women showed increased suppression of the DMN and increased activation of the DAN compared to men. These results suggest that women may have neural processing biases toward stimuli representing reward and punishment.




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