Sex-specific neurobiological underpinnings of impulsivity in youth with externalizing disorders have not been well studied. The only report of functional connectivity (FC) findings in this area demonstrated sex differences in fronto-subcortical connectivity in youth with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine sex differences in resting-state seed-based FC, self-rated impulsivity, and their interactions in 11-12-year-old boys (n = 43) and girls (n = 43) with externalizing disorders. Generalized linear models controlling for pubertal development were used. Seeds were chosen in the ventral striatum, medial prefrontal cortex, middle frontal gyrus and amygdala.
Impulsivity scores were greater in boys than girls (p < 0.05). Boys showed greater positive connectivity within a ventromedial prefrontal-ventral striatal network. In addition, boys demonstrated weaker connectivity than girls within two medial–lateral prefrontal cortical networks. However, only boys showed greater medial–lateral prefrontal connectivity correlated with greater impulsivity.
The findings provide evidence supporting sex differences in both ventral striatal-ventromedial prefrontal and medial–lateral prefrontal functional networks in youth with externalizing disorders. These important networks are thought to be implicated in impulse control. Medial-lateral prefrontal connectivity may represent a male-specific biomarker of impulsivity.