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Learn Mem. 2009 Mar 24;16(4):248-66. doi: 10.1101/lm.918309. Print 2009 Apr.

Sex influences on the neurobiology of learning and memory.

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  • 1Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697-3800, USA.


In essentially every domain of neuroscience, the generally implicit assumption that few, if any, meaningful differences exist between male and female brain function is being challenged. Here we address how this development is influencing studies of the neurobiology of learning and memory. While it has been commonly held that males show an advantage on spatial tasks, and females on verbal tasks, there is increasing evidence that sex differences are more widespread than previously supposed. Differing performance between the sexes have been observed on a number of common learning tasks in both the human and animal literature, many neither purely spatial nor verbal. We review sex differences reported in various areas to date, while attempting to identify common features of sexually dimorphic tasks, and to place these differences in a neurobiological context. This discussion focuses on studies of four classes of memory tasks for which sex differences have been frequently reported: spatial, verbal, autobiographical, and emotional memory. We conclude that the female verbal advantage extends into numerous tasks, including tests of spatial and autobiographical abilities, but that a small but significant advantage may exist for general episodic memory. We further suggest that for some tasks, stress evokes sex differences, which are not normally observed, and that these differences are mediated largely by interactions between stress and sex hormones.

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