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A developmental examination of gender differences in brain engagement during evaluation of threat

BACKGROUND: Females appear to be more sensitive and responsive to social cues, including threat signals, than are males. Recent theoretical models suggest that developmental changes in brain functioning play important roles in the emergence of such gender differences. METHODS: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine developmental and gender differences in activation of neural structures thought to mediate attention to emotional faces depicting varying degrees of threat. Analyses focused on the orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and anterior cingulate cortex during the evaluation of threat conveyed by faces. Healthy adolescents (n = 17; 53% male) and adults (n = 17; 53% male) were scanned while they rated how threatening pictures of neutral and emotional (angry, fearful, or happy) faces appeared. RESULTS: Results indicate significant interactions among age, gender, and face type for activation during explicit threat monitoring. In particular, adult women activated orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala selectively to unambiguous threat (angry) cues, while adult men showed a less discriminating pattern of activation. No gender differences were evident for adolescents, who as a group resembled adult males. CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that there are gender differences in patterns of neural responses to emotional faces that are not fully apparent until adulthood.