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.
Dumais, K. M., Chernyak, S., Nickerson, L. D., & Janes, A. C. (2018). Sex differences in default mode and dorsal attention network engagement. PLoS ONE, 13(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199049