Sex and age differences in cognitive bias and neural activation in response to cognitive bias testing

Neurobiol Stress. 2022 May 6:18:100458. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2022.100458. eCollection 2022 May.


Cognitive symptoms of depression, including negative cognitive bias, are more severe in women than in men. Current treatments to reduce negative cognitive bias are not effective and sex differences in the neural activity underlying cognitive bias may play a role. Here we examined sex and age differences in cognitive bias and functional connectivity in a novel paradigm. Male and female rats underwent an 18-day cognitive bias procedure, in which they learned to discriminate between two contexts (shock paired context A, no-shock paired context B), during either adolescence (postnatal day (PD 40)), young adulthood (PD 100), or middle-age (PD 210). Cognitive bias was measured as freezing behaviour in response to an ambiguous context (context C), with freezing levels akin to the shock paired context coded as negative bias. All animals learned to discriminate between the two contexts, regardless of sex or age. However, adults (young adults, middle-aged) displayed a greater negative cognitive bias compared to adolescents, and middle-aged males had a greater negative cognitive bias than middle-aged females. Females had greater neural activation of the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and hippocampal regions to the ambiguous context compared to males, and young rats (adolescent, young adults) had greater neural activation in these regions compared to middle-aged rats. Functional connectivity between regions involved in cognitive bias differed by age and sex, and only adult males had negative correlations between the frontal regions and hippocampal regions. These findings highlight the importance of examining age and sex when investigating the underpinnings of negative cognitive bias and lay the groundwork for determining what age- and sex-specific regions to target in future cognitive bias studies.

Keywords: Adolescence; Amygdala; Fear conditioning; Frontal cortex; Hippocampus; Middle-age; Nucleus accumbens; Pattern separation; Sex differences; c-Fos; depression.