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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Aug;37(8):1135-57. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.01.002. Epub 2012 Jan 27.

Sex differences in physiological reactivity to acute psychosocial stress in adolescence.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh, 121 Meyran Avenue, Loeffler Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA. ordazs@upmc.edu

Abstract

Females begin to demonstrate greater negative affective responses to stress than males in adolescence. This may reflect the concurrent emergence of underlying differences in physiological response systems, including corticolimbic circuitries, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA), and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This review examines when sex differences in physiological reactivity to acute psychosocial stress emerge and the directionality of these differences over development. Indeed, the literature indicates that sex differences emerge during adolescence and persist into adulthood for all three physiological response systems. However, the directionality of the differences varies by system. The emerging corticolimbic reactivity literature suggests greater female reactivity, particularly in limbic regions densely innervated by gonadal hormone receptors. In contrast, males generally show higher levels of HPAA and ANS reactivity. We argue that the contrasting directionality of corticolimbic and peripheral physiological responses may reflect specific effects of gonadal hormones on distinct systems and also sex differences in evolved behavioral responses that demand different levels of peripheral physiological activation. Studies that examine both subjective reports of negative affect and physiological responses indicate that beginning in adolescence, females respond to acute stressors with more intense negative affect than males despite their comparatively lower peripheral physiological responses. This dissociation is not clearly explained by sex differences in the strength of the relationship between physiological and subjective responses. We suggest that females' greater subjective responsivity may instead arise from a greater activity in brain regions that translate stress responses to subjective awareness in adolescence. Future research directions include investigations of the role of pubertal hormones in physiological reactivity across all systems, examining the relationship of corticolimbic reactivity and negative affect, and sex differences in emotion regulation processes.

PMID:
22281210
PMCID:
PMC3472630
DOI:
10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.01.002
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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