Gender Key In Brain’s Response To Smoking

By Amanda Cuda
Connecticut Post, Bridgeport.

When helping someone quit smoking, there are many factors to consider, and Terry Budlong said he definitely would include gender on that list.

Budlong is director of prevention services and smoking cessation coordinator for the Midwestern Connecticut Council of Alcoholism, a Danbury-based addiction-services program. MCCA runs smoking-cessation services in multiple municipalities, including Danbury, Derby and New Haven, and Budlong said she and her counselors consistently see gender differences among the smokers they encounter.

“(Women) tend to smoke for emotional reasons,” she said, including alleviating stress. “Men tend to be more attracted to the actual addictive effect of nicotine.”

Given her experience, Budlong said she was not surprised by the results of a new study from the Yale University School of Medicine, showing that male and female brains respond differently to nicotine.

The study recruited 16 men and women who were addicted, and had them smoke during a positron-emission-tomography scan.

Researchers used images from the scan to make “movies” of brains as study participants smoked. The movies were used to track the brains’ responses — specifically, the way dopamine (a neurotransmitter that affects the body’s emotions and reactions to pleasure and pain) is released during smoking.

The study confirms long-held opinions about gender differences, and sets the stage for the creation of more effective smoking-cessation programs and medications, said Kelly Cosgrove, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale and lead author of the study.

“There’s obviously still a need to help people quit smoking,” she said. “If you want to target cessation treatments, you need to look at brain response.”

The team found that, in men, the dopamine release was consistently in the right ventral striatum, a part of the brain central to reinforcing the effect of such drugs as nicotine. In women, the dopamine response was largely in the dorsal striatum. That portion of the brain is crucial in reinforcing chemical dependence.

Researchers said the images show reactions in different parts of the brain and support theories scientists have had for years that men smoke to reinforce the drug effect of nicotine, while women smoke for other reasons, such as to reduce stress.

Experts have long believed these differences explain why men respond to nicotine replacement therapies, such as the patch, better than women, and why women can have a harder time quitting smoking.

But the study provides scientific backing for those theories, said Evan Morris, Yale associate professor of diagnostic radiology, biomedical engineering and psychiatry, and senior author on the study.

“What we found is that there were repeatable differences between men and women,” he said. “This difference between the sexes is important and consistent with what we know about men and women smokers.”

The hope is these findings will eventually lead to the development of gender-specific, smoking-cessation treatments, but Cosgrove said more research is needed, particularly since this study had such a small sample.

Budlong said she hopes the Yale research eventually leads to better solutions for smoking cessation, which is an uphill battle for many of her clients.

“We know it does sometimes take people many attempts to quit smoking,” she said. “The more we know, the more we would be prepared to really help people.”

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