Understanding Gender Differences in Brain that Affect Smoking Behaviors
Julie K. Staley, Ph.D.,Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Diagnostic Radiology
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death and disease in women, yet women find it more difficult than men to quit smoking, as evidenced by the lower quit rates for women seen annually since assessment began in the mid-1960s. Although not fully understood, the evidence that exists on the nature of cigarette smoking in women appears to show that the neurochemical basis of cigarette smoking differs between men and women, suggesting that gender-specific treatments are needed to assist women in their efforts to quit. In addition, emerging evidence suggests that the effects of nicotine vary across different phases of the menstrual cycle in women. Dr. Staley employed brain-imaging technology to investigate gender differences in nicotine receptors in the brain, and whether possible alteration in nicotine receptors across the menstrual cycle potentially could affect the efficacy of nicotine replacement therapies for women attempting to quit smoking.
Highlighted Study Findings
In previous work, Dr. Staley made the important discovery that women have higher nicotinic acetylcholine receptor availability than men. This new Ethel F. Donaghue Women’s Health Investigator Program-funded study was directed toward identifying and understanding possible alterations in nicotine receptors across the menstrual cycle in order to inform development of cessation therapies, particularly nicotine replacement therapy, for women. In imaging women who were nonsmokers, the results did not suggest that nicotine receptor availability varied during the menstrual cycle. Thus, change in receptor availability did not appear to account for variable success in smoking cessation over the cycle. The study did not rule out the possibility that women smokers may have alterations in receptors across the menstrual cycle. Dr. Staley’s findings laid some of the early groundwork for research that continues in the area of smoking cessation and the menstrual cycle. Following the sad and untimely death of Dr. Staley, her post-doctoral student, Dr. Kelly Cosgrove, carried Dr. Staley’s work forward and has now shown that nicotinic acetylcholine receptor availability is affected by sex hormones and is correlated with cigarette craving in women smokers. These findings are being used to inform drug development.