Sex differences in the cerebral BOLD signal response to painful heat stimuli

Eric A. Moulton, Michael L. Keaser, Rao P. Gullapalli, Ranjan Maitra, Joel D. Greenspan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


There are limited data addressing the question of sex differences in pain-related cerebral processing. This study examined whether pain-related blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signal change measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) demonstrated sex differences, under conditions of equivalent pain perception. Twenty-eight healthy volunteers (17 women, 11 men) were subject to a fMRI scan while noxious heat stimuli were applied to the dorsum of the left foot. Significant BOLD signal modulation was observed in several nociceptive processing regions of interest (ROIs) in all subjects. There were no sex differences in the spatial extent of BOLD signal change for any ROI, but the signal amplitude was lower for women in most ROIs and significantly so for the primary somatosensory cortex (S1), the midanterior cingulate cortex, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The BOLD signal response could be positive or negative, and frequently, both polarities were observed within a single ROI. In most ROIs, women show proportionately more voxels with negative signal change than men, and this difference was statistically significant for the S1 and the DLPFC. The time course of the negative signal change was very similar to that of the positive signal change, suggesting that the latter was not "driving" the former. The location of negative and positive clusters formed distinct patterns in several of the ROIs, and these patterns suggest something other than a local "steal" phenomenon as an explanation for the negative signal changes. Sex differences in baseline cerebral blood flow may contribute to the BOLD signal differences observed in this study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)R257-R267
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Regulatory Integrative and Comparative Physiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Negative blood oxygenation level-dependent signal
  • Neuroimaging
  • Nociception
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Somatosensory cortex
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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