Sex differences in the brain response to affective scenes with or without humans

Neuropsychologia. 2009 Oct;47(12):2374-88. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.10.030. Epub 2008 Nov 17.


Recent findings have demonstrated that women might be more reactive than men to viewing painful stimuli (vicarious response to pain), and therefore more empathic [Han, S., Fan, Y., & Mao, L. (2008). Gender difference in empathy for pain: An electrophysiological investigation. Brain Research, 1196, 85-93]. We investigated whether the two sexes differed in their cerebral responses to affective pictures portraying humans in different positive or negative contexts compared to natural or urban scenarios. 440 IAPS slides were presented to 24 Italian students (12 women and 12 men). Half the pictures displayed humans while the remaining scenes lacked visible persons. ERPs were recorded from 128 electrodes and swLORETA (standardized weighted Low-Resolution Electromagnetic Tomography) source reconstruction was performed. Occipital P115 was greater in response to persons than to scenes and was affected by the emotional valence of the human pictures. This suggests that processing of biologically relevant stimuli is prioritized. Orbitofrontal N2 was greater in response to positive than negative human pictures in women but not in men, and not to scenes. A late positivity (LP) to suffering humans far exceeded the response to negative scenes in women but not in men. In both sexes, the contrast suffering-minus-happy humans revealed a difference in the activation of the occipito/temporal, right occipital (BA19), bilateral parahippocampal, left dorsal prefrontal cortex (DPFC) and left amygdala. However, increased right amygdala and right frontal area activities were observed only in women. The humans-minus-scenes contrast revealed a difference in the activation of the middle occipital gyrus (MOG) in men, and of the left inferior parietal (BA40), left superior temporal gyrus (STG, BA38) and right cingulate (BA31) in women (270-290 ms). These data indicate a sex-related difference in the brain response to humans, possibly supporting human empathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology*
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult