BACKGROUND: The ability to mentalize, i.e. develop a Theory of Mind (ToM), enables us to anticipate and build a model of the thoughts, emotions and intentions of others. It has long been hypothesised that women differ from men in their mentalizing abilities. In the present fMRI study we examined the impact of (1) gender (women vs. men) and (2) game partner (human vs. computer) on ToM associated neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. Groups of men (n = 12) and women (n = 12) interacted in an iterated classical prisoner's dilemma forced choice situation with alleged human and computer partners who were outside the scanner. RESULTS: Both the conditions of playing against putative human as well as computer partners led to activity increases in mPFC, ACC and rTPJ, constituting the classic ToM network. However, mPFC/ACC activity was more pronounced when participants believed they were playing against the alleged human partner. Differences in the medial frontal lobe activation related to the sex of the participants could be demonstrated for the human partner > computer partner contrast. CONCLUSION: Our data demonstrate differences in medial prefrontal brain activation during a ToM task depending on both the gender of participants and the game partner.
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