Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience

Sex-Specific Neural Networks of Cued Threat Conditioning: A Pilot Study

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Cued threat conditioning is the most common preclinical model for emotional memory, which is dysregulated in anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Though women are twice as likely as men to develop these disorders, current knowledge of threat conditioning networks was established by studies that excluded female subjects. For unbiased investigation of sex differences in these networks, we quantified the neural activity marker c-fos across 112 brain regions in adult male and female mice after cued threat conditioning compared to naïve controls. We found that trained females engaged prelimbic cortex, lateral amygdala, cortical amygdala, dorsal peduncular cortex, and subparafasicular nucleus more than, and subparaventricular zone less than, trained males. To explore how these sex differences in regional activity impact the global network, we generated interregional cross-correlations of c-fos expression to identify regions that were co-active during conditioning and performed hub analyses to identify regional control centers within each neural network. These exploratory graph theory-derived analyses revealed sex differences in the functional coordination of the threat conditioning network as well as distinct hub regions between trained males and females. Hub identification across multiple networks constructed by sequentially pruning the least reliable connections revealed globus pallidus and ventral lateral septum as the most robust hubs for trained males and females, respectively. While low sample size and lack of non-associative controls are major limitations, these findings provide preliminary evidence of sex differences in the individual circuit components and broader global networks of threat conditioning that may confer female vulnerability to fear-based psychiatric disease.