An fMRI study of sex differences in regional activation to a verbal and a spatial task

Brain Lang. 2000 Sep;74(2):157-70. doi: 10.1006/brln.2000.2325.


Sex differences in cognitive performance have been documented, women performing better on some phonological tasks and men on spatial tasks. An earlier fMRI study suggested sex differences in distributed brain activation during phonological processing, with bilateral activation seen in women while men showed primarily left-lateralized activation. This blood oxygen level-dependent fMRI study examined sex differences (14 men, 13 women) in activation for a spatial task (judgment of line orientation) compared to a verbal-reasoning task (analogies) that does not typically show sex differences. Task difficulty was manipulated. Hypothesized ROI-based analysis documented the expected left-lateralized changes for the verbal task in the inferior parietal and planum temporal regions in both men and women, but only men showed right-lateralized increase for the spatial task in these regions. Image-based analysis revealed a distributed network of cortical regions activated by the tasks, which consisted of the lateral frontal, medial frontal, mid-temporal, occipitoparietal, and occipital regions. The activation was more left lateralized for the verbal and more right for the spatial tasks, but men also showed some left activation for the spatial task, which was not seen in women. Increased task difficulty produced more distributed activation for the verbal and more circumscribed activation for the spatial task. The results suggest that failure to activate the appropriate hemisphere in regions directly involved in task performance may explain certain sex differences in performance. They also extend, for a spatial task, the principle that bilateral activation in a distributed cognitive system underlies sex differences in performance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Sex Factors
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology*