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Smoking Lights Up Brains' Response Differently in Men & Women

By analyzing dynamic brain scans, Yale researchers have pinpointed a different brain response between male and female smokers. 

Previous research has shown that smoking cigarettes affects men's and women's brains differently, but this study marks the first time that PET (positron emission tomography) scans were used to create "movies" of how smoking affects dopamine, the neurotransmitter that triggers feelings of pleasure in the brain, said Morris, the co-director of imaging Section, Yale PET Center. 

The videos show that dopamine is activated by smoking in men much faster than it is in women. Participants were injected with a very small amount of a radioactive tracer that "lit up" parts of the brain where high levels of dopamine were present.


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"They are equally dependent [on nicotine] but their brains are responding differently. This is not an event that could have happened by chance," Morris said.

Past research has shown behavioral differences when it comes to male vs. female smokers. For decades, men have had better luck quitting by using medications and nicotine blockers such as patches. That is because men smoke for the effect of nicotine levels, studies have shown, while women typically smoke to relieve stress or out of habit.

The study reinforced previous research, Cosgrove said. It found dopamine release in nicotine-dependent men occurred quickly in an area of the brain that reinforces the effect of drugs such as nicotine. Women had a similarly rapid response but in a different part of the brain, the one associated with habit formation.

Smoking causes 90 percent of all lung cancer deaths and 80 percent of all chronic obstructive pulmonary disease deaths, and more than doubles the risk of getting heart disease or having a stroke. Men who smoke are 25 times more likely than nonsmokers to get lung cancer, while female smokers are 26 times more likely to get it than their nonsmoking counterparts, according to the CDC.

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