Background: There is accumulating evidence on the negative impacts of childhood poverty on physical and mental health. Previous work has suggested hyperactive neural response to social fear cues, as well as impairment in neural regulatory functions. However, despite differences found between males and females in stress-related and anxiety disorders, possible sex-specific effects of poverty on emotional processing have not been explored. Methods: We analyzed data from three previously reported experiments of childhood poverty effects on emotional processing and regulation, for sex-specific effects. Participants were 52 healthy Caucasian males and females, from a longitudinal cohort of poverty development study, who were recruited for examining the long-term effects of childhood poverty and stress. The three functional MRI studies included emotion regulation task, emotional face assessment task, and shifted attention emotion appraisal task. Brain activations that associated with childhood poverty previously were entered into a regression analysis with interaction of gender by childhood income-to-need ratio as the independent variable, and age and current income-to-need ratio as variables of no interest, separately for males and females. Results: Amygdala reactivity to implicitly processed fearful faces was positively correlated with childhood income-to-need in adult females but not males. On the other hand, activation in dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal regions during emotion regulation by reappraisal was positively correlated with childhood income-to-need in males. Conclusion: Childhood poverty may exert sex-specific effects in adulthood as presented by hypersensitive emotional reactivity of the amygdala in females, and impaired emotion regulatory function of the prefrontal cortex in males. Results suggest further focus on sex-specific effects of childhood poverty.
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