Men and Women Respond Differently To Smoking Cigarettes, Researchers Say

By Victoria Kim 12/10/14

Researchers have identified so-called dopamine signatures unique to men and women.

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The brain’s dopamine-driven response to smoking cigarettes differ between men and women, according to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The established notion is that men smoke for the reinforcing drug effect of nicotine while women tend to smoke for other reasons, such as to alleviate stress. But until now, the neurological bases for these sex differences have eluded researchers.

The Yale research team observed 16 nicotine-dependent smokers—eight men and eight women—during smoking sessions. For the first time, using a novel method of analyzing PET (positron emission tomography) scans, the team was able to create “dopamine activation movies” to visualize the brain’s dopamine response during smoking.

The new method allowed the team to observe brief bursts of dopamine activity that were previously unmeasurable with PET imaging. The researchers found that the dopamine release in men was consistent and rapid in the right ventral striatum, a region of the brain central to the reinforcement effect of drugs such as nicotine. In women, a similar dopamine response was found only in a part of the dorsal striatum, a brain region that is critical for habit formation.

“By way of analogy, think of an EKG. It shows you a pattern of electrical activity in the heart over the whole cardiac cycle. You can’t identify tachycardia from a single moment in the EKG,” explained Evan D. Morris, associate professor of diagnostic radiology, biomedical engineering, and psychiatry, and senior author of the study. “Similarly, our dopamine movies show patterns of dopamine activation in the brain over time. This was not possible previously. We hope to find patterns that indicate addiction and patterns that indicate effectiveness of treatment for addiction.”

Now that researchers have identified the unique “dopamine signatures” in men and women, it is easier to develop gender-specific smoking cessation treatments.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr