Sex differences in stress response circuitry activation dependent on female hormonal cycle

Goldstein JM, Jerram M, Abbs B, Whitfield-Gabrieli S, Makris N

J. Neurosci. 2010 Jan;30(2):431-8

PMID: 20071507


Understanding sex differences in stress regulation has important implications for understanding basic physiological differences in the male and female brain and their impact on vulnerability to sex differences in chronic medical disorders associated with stress response circuitry. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we demonstrated that significant sex differences in brain activity in stress response circuitry were dependent on women’s menstrual cycle phase. Twelve healthy Caucasian premenopausal women were compared to a group of healthy men from the same population, based on age, ethnicity, education, and right handedness. Subjects were scanned using negative valence/high arousal versus neutral visual stimuli that we demonstrated activated stress response circuitry [amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, brainstem, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG)]. Women were scanned twice based on normal variation in menstrual cycle hormones [i.e., early follicular (EF) compared with late follicular-midcycle (LF/MC) menstrual phases]. Using SPM8b, there were few significant differences in blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signal changes in men compared to EF women, except ventromedial nucleus (VMN), lateral hypothalamic area (LHA), left amygdala, and ACG. In contrast, men exhibited significantly greater BOLD signal changes compared to LF/MC women on bilateral ACG and OFC, mPFC, LHA, VMN, hippocampus, and periaqueductal gray, with largest effect sizes in mPFC and OFC. Findings suggest that sex differences in stress response circuitry are hormonally regulated via the impact of subcortical brain activity on the cortical control of arousal, and demonstrate that females have been endowed with a natural hormonal capacity to regulate the stress response that differs from males.