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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Are women better mindreaders? Sex differences in neural correlates of mentalizing detected with functional MRI

Sören Krach12*, Isabelle Blümel3, Dominic Marjoram4, Tineke Lataster5, Lydia Krabbendam5, Jochen Weber6, Jim van Os5 and Tilo Kircher2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry und Psychotherapy, Section of Neuroimaging, Philipps-University Marburg, Rudolf-Bultmann-Straße 8, D-35039 Marburg, Germany

2 Department of Psychiatry und Psychotherapy, Philipps-University Marburg, Rudolf-Bultmann-Straße 8, D-35039 Marburg, Germany

3 Department of Psychiatry, RWTH Aachen University Hospital, Pauwelsstr. 30, D-52074 Aachen, Germany

4 Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow, 58 Hillhead Street, Glasgow, G12 8QB, UK

5 Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, Maastricht University, PO BOX 616 (location DOT10) 6200 MD Maastricht, the Netherlands

6 Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory Department of Psychology, Columbia University, 1190 Amsterdam Avenue, New York City, NY 10027, USA

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BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:9  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-9

Published: 4 February 2009

Abstract

Background

The ability to mentalize, i.e. develop a Theory of Mind (ToM), enables us to anticipate and build a model of the thoughts, emotions and intentions of others. It has long been hypothesised that women differ from men in their mentalizing abilities. In the present fMRI study we examined the impact of (1) gender (women vs. men) and (2) game partner (human vs. computer) on ToM associated neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. Groups of men (n = 12) and women (n = 12) interacted in an iterated classical prisoner's dilemma forced choice situation with alleged human and computer partners who were outside the scanner.

Results

Both the conditions of playing against putative human as well as computer partners led to activity increases in mPFC, ACC and rTPJ, constituting the classic ToM network. However, mPFC/ACC activity was more pronounced when participants believed they were playing against the alleged human partner. Differences in the medial frontal lobe activation related to the sex of the participants could be demonstrated for the human partner > computer partner contrast.

Conclusion

Our data demonstrate differences in medial prefrontal brain activation during a ToM task depending on both the gender of participants and the game partner.