Background: Anxiety disorders are more prevalent in women than in men. Despite this sexual dimorphism, most experimental studies are conducted in male participants and studies focusing on sex differences are sparse. In addition, the role of hormonal contraceptives and menstrual cycle phase in fear conditioning and extinction processes remain largely unknown.
Methods: We investigated sex differences in context-dependent fear acquisition and extinction (day 1) and their retrieval/expression (day 2). Skin conductance responses (SCRs), fear and unconditioned stimulus expectancy ratings were obtained.
Results: We included 377 individuals (261 women) in our study. Robust sex differences were observed in all dependent measures. Women generally displayed higher subjective ratings but smaller SCRs than men and showed reduced excitatory/inhibitory conditioned stimulus (CS+/CS-) discrimination in all dependent measures. Furthermore, women using hormonal contraceptives showed reduced SCR CS discrimination on day 2 than men and free-cycling women, while menstrual cycle phase had no effect.
Limitations: Possible limitations include the simultaneous testing of up to 4 participants in cubicles, which might have introduced a social component, and not assessing postexperimental contingency awareness.
Conclusion: The response pattern in women shows striking similarity to previously reported sex differences in patients with anxiety. Our results suggest that pronounced deficits in associative discrimination learning and subjective expression of safety information (CS- responses) might underlie higher prevalence and higher symptom rates seen in women with anxiety disorders. The data call for consideration of biological sex and hormonal contraceptive use in future studies and may suggest that targeting inhibitory learning during therapy might aid precision medicine.