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Sex-specific differences in GABAA-benzodiazepine receptor availability: relationship with sensitivity to pain and tobacco smoking craving


Irina Esterlis, Department of Psychiatry, Yale University and VACHS, 950 Campbell Ave., 116A6, West Haven, CT 06516, USA. E-mail:


Sex differences exist in tobacco smoking behaviors. Nicotine, the primary addictive ingredient in tobacco smoke, indirectly affects γ-amino butyric acid (GABA) function. Previous studies reported sex-by-smoking interactions in brain GABA levels. The goal of the present study was to evaluate if there is a sex-by-smoking interaction at the GABAA-benzodiazepine receptors (GABAA-BZRs), as well as relationships between GABAA-BZR availability and behavioral variables before and after 1 week of smoking cessation. Twenty-six women (8 non-smokers, age 36.0 ± 13.4 years; 19 smokers, age 34.6 ± 8.9 years) and 25 men (8 non-smokers, age 37.9 ± 13.8 years; 17 smokers, 34.1 ± 12.4 years) were imaged using [123I]iomazenil and single-photon emission computed tomography. Smokers were imaged at baseline 7 hours after the last cigarette. A significantly great number of men were able to abstain from smoking for 1 week (P = 0.003). There were no significant differences in nicotine dependence and cigarette craving, mood or pain sensitivity between male and female smokers. There was a significant effect of gender across all brain regions (frontal, parietal, anterior cingulate, temporal and occipital cortices, and cerebellum; P < 0.05), with all women (smokers and non-smokers combined) having a higher GABAA-BZR availability than all men. There was a negative correlation between GABAA-BZR availability and craving (P ≤ 0.02) and pain sensitivity (P = 0.04) in female smokers but not male smokers. This study provides further evidence of a sex-specific regulation of GABAA-BZR availability in humans and demonstrates the potential for GABAA-BZRs to mediate tobacco smoking craving and pain symptoms differentially in female and male smokers.