Feasibility of functional neuroimaging to understand adolescent women's sexual decision making

Devon J. Hensel, Tom A. Hummer, Lindsay R. Acrurio, Thomas W. James, J. Dennis Fortenberry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

6 Scopus citations


Purpose For young women, new sexual experiences normatively increase after puberty and coincide with extensive changes to brain regions governing self-regulation of risk behavior. These neurodevelopmental changes could leave some young women vulnerable for negative sexual outcomes, including sexually transmitted infection and unintended pregnancy. We evaluated the feasibility of using functional neuroimaging to understand the sexual decision making of adolescent women. Methods Adolescent women (N = 14; 14-15 years) completed enrollment interviews, a neuroimaging task gauging neural activation to appetitive stimuli, and 30 days of prospective diaries following the scan characterizing daily affect and sexual behaviors. Descriptive and inferential statistics assessed the association between imaging and behavioral data. Results Young women were highly compliant with neuroimaging and diary protocol. Neural activity in a cognitive-affective network, including prefrontal and anterior cingulate regions, was significantly greater during low-risk decisions. Compared with other decisions, high-risk sexual decisions elicited greater activity in the anterior cingulate, and low-risk sexual decision elicited greater activity in regions of the visual cortex. Young women's sexual decision ratings were linked to their sexual history characteristics and daily self-reports of sexual emotions and behaviors. Conclusions It is feasible to recruit and retain a cohort of female participants to perform a functional magnetic resonance imaging task focused on making decisions about sex, on the basis of varying levels of hypothetical sexual risk, and to complete longitudinal prospective diaries following this task. Preliminary evidence suggests that risk level differentially impacts brain activity related to sexual decision making in these women, which may be related to past and future sexual behaviors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)389-395
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Adolescent Health
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015


  • Adolescent women
  • Neuroimaging
  • Sexual decision making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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