Individual differences in brain structure underpin empathizing-systemizing cognitive styles in male adults.
Lai MC., Lombardo MV., Chakrabarti B., Ecker C., Sadek SA., Wheelwright SJ., Murphy DG., Suckling J., Bullmore ET., MRC AIMS Consortium None., Baron-Cohen S.
Individual differences in cognitive style can be characterized along two dimensions: 'systemizing' (S, the drive to analyze or build 'rule-based' systems) and 'empathizing' (E, the drive to identify another's mental state and respond to this with an appropriate emotion). Discrepancies between these two dimensions in one direction (S>E) or the other (E>S) are associated with sex differences in cognition: on average more males show an S>E cognitive style, while on average more females show an E>S profile. The neurobiological basis of these different profiles remains unknown. Since individuals may be typical or atypical for their sex, it is important to move away from the study of sex differences and towards the study of differences in cognitive style. Using structural magnetic resonance imaging we examined how neuroanatomy varies as a function of the discrepancy between E and S in 88 adult males from the general population. Selecting just males allows us to study discrepant E-S profiles in a pure way, unconfounded by other factors related to sex and gender. An increasing S>E profile was associated with increased gray matter volume in cingulate and dorsal medial prefrontal areas which have been implicated in processes related to cognitive control, monitoring, error detection, and probabilistic inference. An increasing E>S profile was associated with larger hypothalamic and ventral basal ganglia regions which have been implicated in neuroendocrine control, motivation and reward. These results suggest an underlying neuroanatomical basis linked to the discrepancy between these two important dimensions of individual differences in cognitive style.