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Neuropsychologia. 2007 Nov 5;45(14):3203-14. Epub 2007 Jun 28.

Functional anatomy of visuo-spatial working memory during mental rotation is influenced by sex, menstrual cycle, and sex steroid hormones.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Münster, Germany.


Recent observations indicate that sex and level of steroid hormones may influence cortical networks associated with specific cognitive functions, in particular visuo-spatial abilities. The present study probed the influence of sex, menstrual cycle, and sex steroid hormones on 3D mental rotation and brain function using 3-T fMRI. Twelve healthy women and 12 men were investigated. Menstrual cycle and hormone levels were assessed. The early follicular and midluteal phase of the menstrual cycle were chosen to examine short-term cyclical changes. Parietal and frontal areas were activated during mental rotation in both sexes. Significant differences between men and women were revealed in both phases of menstrual cycle. In men we observed a significant correlation of activation levels with testosterone levels in the left parietal lobe (BA 40). In women, a cycle-dependent correlation pattern was observed for testosterone: brain activation correlated with this male hormone only during the early follicular phase. In both cycle phases females' brain activation was significantly correlated with estradiol in frontal and parietal areas. Our study provides evidence that fMRI-related activity during performance of cognitive tasks varies across sex and phases of the menstrual cycle. The variation might be partly explained by better task performance in men, but our results indicate that further explanations like basic neuronal or neurovascular effects modulated by steroid hormones must be considered. Both estradiol and testosterone levels may influence fMRI signals of cognitive tasks, which should affect selection of subjects for future fMRI studies.

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