Women's brains process negative emotions differently than men's

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published January 13, 2016

Key Takeaways

Compared with women, men have a more evaluative brain response when experiencing negative feelings rather than a purely emotional reaction. In other words, there is a neurobiological explanation why women tend to demonstrate greater emotional sensitivity, according to a study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“Not everyone's equal when it comes to mental illness," said the study’s lead author Adrianna Mendrek, PhD, a researcher at the Institut Universitaire en Santé Mentale de Montréal, in Montréal, Canada. “Greater emotional reactivity in women may explain many things, such as their being twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders compared to men.”

Due to this disparity in mental illness between the sexes, other studies have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine differences in women’s and men’s brain activations during emotion processing.

For this study, researchers looked not only at brain activity, but brain connectivity. They used fMRI to monitor brain activity in 46 healthy participants—21 men and 25 women. At the same time, participants viewed images and reported whether these evoked positive, negative, or neutral emotions. Researchers also measured sex steroid hormones and feminine-masculine traits.

The researchers found that subjective ratings of negative images were higher in women compared to men. Higher testosterone levels were linked to lower sensitivity, while higher feminine traits (regardless of the sex of tested participants) were linked to higher sensitivity.

Furthermore, while the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and amygdala of the right hemisphere were activated in both men and women at the time of viewing, the connection between the amygdala and dmPFC was stronger in men than in women. The more these two areas interacted, the less that participants reported sensitivity to the images.

“This last point is the most significant observation and the most original of our study," said co-author Stéphane Potvin, PhD, a researcher at the Institut Universitaire en Santé Mentale de Montréal and professor at the University of Montreal's Department of Psychiatry.

The amygdala is involved in threat detection, while the dmPFC is involved cognitive processes and action planning. “A stronger connection between these areas in men suggests they have a more analytical than emotional approach when dealing with negative emotions,” Dr. Potvin said. “It is possible that women tend to focus more on the feelings generated by these stimuli, while men remain somewhat ‘passive' toward negative emotions, trying to analyze the stimuli and their impact.”

This connection appeared to be modulated by testosterone as well as by the participant’s gender. “So there are both biological and cultural factors that modulate our sensitivity to negative situations in terms of emotions,” Dr. Mendrek explained.

The researchers plan to follow up this study by investigating how the brains of men and women react to different negative emotions (fear, sadness, anger), and the role the menstrual cycle plays in this reaction.

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