Sex-dependent dissociation between emotional appraisal and memory: a large-scale behavioral and fMRI study

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Spalek, Klara ; Fastenrath, Matthias ; Ackermann, Sandra ; Auschra, Bianca ; Coynel, David ; Frey, Julia ; Gschwind, Leo ; Hartmann, Francina ; van der Maarel, Nadine ; Papassotiropoulos, Andreas ; de Quervain, Dominique ; Milnik, Annette (2015)

Extensive evidence indicates that women outperform men in episodic memory tasks. Furthermore, women are known to evaluate emotional stimuli as more arousing than men. Because emotional arousal typically increases episodic memory formation, the females' memory advantage might be more pronounced for emotionally arousing information than for neutral information. Here, we report behavioral data from 3398 subjects, who performed picture rating and memory tasks, and corresponding fMRI data from up to 696 subjects. We were interested in the interaction between sex and valence category on emotional appraisal, memory performances, and fMRI activity. The behavioral results showed that females evaluate in particular negative (p < 10(-16)) and positive (p = 2 × 10(-4)), but not neutral pictures, as emotionally more arousing (pinteraction < 10(-16)) than males. However, in the free recall females outperformed males not only in positive (p < 10(-16)) and negative (p < 5 × 10(-5)), but also in neutral picture recall (p < 3.4 × 10(-8)), with a particular advantage for positive pictures (pinteraction < 4.4 × 10(-10)). Importantly, females' memory advantage during free recall was absent in a recognition setting. We identified activation differences in fMRI, which corresponded to the females' stronger appraisal of especially negative pictures, but no activation differences that reflected the interaction effect in the free recall memory task. In conclusion, females' valence-category-specific memory advantage is only observed in a free recall, but not a recognition setting and does not depend on females' higher emotional appraisal.
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