Sex differences in the neural substrates of spatial working memory during adolescence are not mediated by endogenous testosterone

Gabriela Alarcón, Anita Cservenka, Damien A. Fair, Bonnie J. Nagel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Adolescence is a developmental period characterized by notable changes in behavior, physical attributes, and an increase in endogenous sex steroid hormones, which may impact cognitive functioning. Moreover, sex differences in brain structure are present, leading to differences in neural function and cognition. Here, we examine sex differences in performance and blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) activation in a sample of adolescents during a spatial working memory (SWM) task. We also examine whether endogenous testosterone levels mediate differential brain activity between the sexes. Adolescents between ages 10 and 16 years completed a SWM functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) task, and serum hormone levels were assessed within seven days of scanning. While there were no sex differences in task performance (accuracy and reaction time), differences in BOLD response between girls and boys emerged, with girls deactivating brain regions in the default mode network and boys showing increased response in SWM-related brain regions of the frontal cortex. These results suggest that adolescent boys and girls adopted distinct neural strategies, while maintaining spatial cognitive strategies that facilitated comparable cognitive performance of a SWM task. A nonparametric bootstrapping procedure revealed that testosterone did not mediate sex-specific brain activity, suggesting that sex differences in BOLD activation during SWM may be better explained by other factors, such as early organizational effects of sex steroids or environmental influences. Elucidating sex differences in neural function and the influence of gonadal hormones can serve as a basis of comparison for understanding sexually dimorphic neurodevelopment and inform sex-specific psychopathology that emerges in adolescence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)40-54
Number of pages15
JournalBrain research
StatePublished - Dec 17 2014


  • Adolescence
  • Sex differences
  • Spatial working memory
  • Testosterone
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology


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