Sex differences in brain activation to emotional stimuli: a meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies

Neuropsychologia. 2012 Jun;50(7):1578-93. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.03.011. Epub 2012 Mar 17.


Substantial sex differences in emotional responses and perception have been reported in previous psychological and psychophysiological studies. For example, women have been found to respond more strongly to negative emotional stimuli, a sex difference that has been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders. The extent to which such sex differences are reflected in corresponding differences in regional brain activation remains a largely unresolved issue, however, in part because relatively few neuroimaging studies have addressed this issue. Here, by conducting a quantitative meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies, we were able to substantially increase statistical power to detect sex differences relative to prior studies, by combining emotion studies which explicitly examined sex differences with the much larger number of studies that examined only women or men. We used an activation likelihood estimation approach to characterize sex differences in the likelihood of regional brain activation elicited by emotional stimuli relative to non-emotional stimuli. We examined sex differences separately for negative and positive emotions, in addition to examining all emotions combined. Sex differences varied markedly between negative and positive emotion studies. The majority of sex differences favoring women were observed for negative emotion, whereas the majority of the sex differences favoring men were observed for positive emotion. This valence-specificity was particularly evident for the amygdala. For negative emotion, women exhibited greater activation than men in the left amygdala, as well as in other regions including the left thalamus, hypothalamus, mammillary bodies, left caudate, and medial prefrontal cortex. In contrast, for positive emotion, men exhibited greater activation than women in the left amygdala, as well as greater activation in other regions including the bilateral inferior frontal gyrus and right fusiform gyrus. These meta-analysis findings indicate that the amygdala, a key region for emotion processing, exhibits valence-dependent sex differences in activation to emotional stimuli. The greater left amygdala response to negative emotion for women accords with previous reports that women respond more strongly to negative emotional stimuli, as well as with hypothesized links between increased neurobiological reactivity to negative emotion and increased prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders in women. The finding of greater left amygdala activation for positive emotional stimuli in men suggests that greater amygdala responses reported previously for men for specific types of positive stimuli may also extend to positive stimuli more generally. In summary, this study extends efforts to characterize sex differences in brain activation during emotion processing by providing the largest and most comprehensive quantitative meta-analysis to date, and for the first time examining sex differences as a function of positive vs. negative emotional valence. The current findings highlight the importance of considering sex as a potential factor modulating emotional processing and its underlying neural mechanisms, and more broadly, the need to consider individual differences in understanding the neurobiology of emotion.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuroimaging*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Sex Characteristics*