Sex differences in longitudinal changes of episodic memory-related brain activity and cognition in cognitively unimpaired older adults with a family history of Alzheimer's disease

Neuroimage Clin. 2023:40:103532. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2023.103532. Epub 2023 Oct 29.


Episodic memory decline is an early symptom of Alzheimer's disease (AD) - a neurodegenerative disease that has a higher prevalence rate in older females compared to older males. However, little is known about why these sex differences in prevalence rate exist. In the current longitudinal task fMRI study, we explored whether there were sex differences in the patterns of memory decline and brain activity during object-location (spatial context) encoding and retrieval in a large sample of cognitively unimpaired older adults from the Pre-symptomatic Evaluation of Novel or Experimental Treatments for Alzheimer's Disease (PREVENT-AD) program who are at heightened risk of developing AD due to having a family history (+FH) of the disease. The goal of the study was to gain insight into whether there are sex differences in the neural correlates of episodic memory decline, which may advance knowledge about sex-specific patterns in the natural progression to AD. Our results indicate that +FH females performed better than +FH males at both baseline and follow-up on neuropsychological and task fMRI measures of episodic memory. Moreover, multivariate data-driven task fMRI analysis identified generalized patterns of longitudinal decline in medial temporal lobe activity that was paralleled by longitudinal increases in lateral prefrontal cortex, caudate and midline cortical activity during successful episodic retrieval and novelty detection in +FH males, but not females. Post-hoc analyses indicated that higher education had a stronger effect on +FH females neuropsychological scores compared to +FH males. We conclude that higher educational attainment may have a greater neuroprotective effect in older +FH females compared to +FH males.

Keywords: Cognition; Episodic memory; Family history of Alzheimer’s disease; Longitudinal study; Sex differences; Task-related functional MRI.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease* / diagnostic imaging
  • Alzheimer Disease* / genetics
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Temporal Lobe