Adolescent neural response to reward is related to participant sex and task motivation

Gabriela Alarcón, Anita Cservenka, Bonnie J. Nagel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Risky decision making is prominent during adolescence, perhaps contributed to by heightened sensation seeking and ongoing maturation of reward and dopamine systems in the brain, which are, in part, modulated by sex hormones. In this study, we examined sex differences in the neural substrates of reward sensitivity during a risky decision-making task and hypothesized that compared with girls, boys would show heightened brain activation in reward-relevant regions, particularly the nucleus accumbens, during reward receipt. Further, we hypothesized that testosterone and estradiol levels would mediate this sex difference. Moreover, we predicted boys would make more risky choices on the task. While boys showed increased nucleus accumbens blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response relative to girls, sex hormones did not mediate this effect. As predicted, boys made a higher percentage of risky decisions during the task. Interestingly, boys also self-reported more motivation to perform well and earn money on the task, while girls self-reported higher state anxiety prior to the scan session. Motivation to earn money partially mediated the effect of sex on nucleus accumbens activity during reward. Previous research shows that increased motivation and salience of reinforcers is linked with more robust striatal BOLD response, therefore psychosocial factors, in addition to sex, may play an important role in reward sensitivity. Elucidating neurobiological mechanisms that support adolescent sex differences in risky decision making has important implications for understanding individual differences that lead to advantageous and adverse behaviors that affect health outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-62
Number of pages12
JournalBrain and Cognition
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017


  • Adolescence
  • Motivation
  • Reward
  • Risk taking
  • Sex differences
  • Sex hormones

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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