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Sex-linked association between cortical scene selectivity and navigational ability

Kong, X., Huang, Y., Hu, S., & Liu, J. (2017). Sex-linked association between cortical scene selectivity and navigational ability. NeuroImage, 158, 397-405. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.07.031.
Spatial navigation is a crucial ability for living. Previous studies have shown that males are better at navigation than females, but little is known about the neural basis underlying the sex differences. In this study, we investigated whether cortical scene processing in three well-established scene-selective regions was sexually different, by examining sex differences in scene selectivity and its behavioral relevance to navigation. To do this, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the parahippocampal place area (PPA), retrosplenial complex (RSC), and occipital place area (OPA) in a large cohort of healthy young adults viewing navigationally relevant scenes (N = 202), and correlated their neural selectivity to scenes with their self-reported navigational ability. Behaviorally, we replicated the previous finding that males were better at navigation than females. Neurally, we found that the scene selectivity in the bilateral PPA, not in the RSC or OPA, was significantly higher in males than females. Such differences could not be explained by confounding factors including brain size and fMRI data quality. Importantly, males, not females, with stronger scene selectivity in the left PPA possessed better navigational ability. This brain-behavior association could not be accounted for by non-navigational abilities (i.e., intelligence and mental rotation ability). Overall, our study provides novel empirical evidence demonstrating sex differences in the brain activity, inviting further studies on sex differences in the neural network for spatial navigation.

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