Sex differences in the central nervous system actions of ethanol

Crit Rev Neurobiol. 2003;15(1):41-59. doi: 10.1615/critrevneurobiol.v15.i1.20.


For many years, researchers have avoided including females in their research because of the poorly understood influences of cycling hormones. However, we are becoming increasingly aware that sex matters, showing that it is important to conduct studies in females as well as males. This review will focus on the central nervous system (CNS) actions of alcohol (ethanol) because we have found significant sex differences in ethanol actions at the molecular as well as the behavioral level. Most recently, in our studies of ethanol dependence and withdrawal, we found that female rats displayed a shorter time for recovery from ethanol withdrawal, assessed by measuring seizure susceptibility. We now report that this finding was confirmed with a second convulsant agent. Moreover, GABAA receptor function was differentially altered in ethanol-withdrawn female compared to male rats. Studies by other investigators have reported additional significant sex differences in ethanol seeking and drinking behaviors and across several measures of ethanol dependence and withdrawal. We are gaining a better understanding of how the actions of ethanol in the CNS overlay sex differences in brain architecture and the hormonal milieu. Therefore, it is not surprising to observe sex-selective effects on cellular and behavioral outcomes from ethanol consumption. While current research is focused on characterizing sex differences in the actions of ethanol, it has not yet reached the point where we can integrate our findings into a unifying concept of how being female differentially regulates CNS responses to ethanol. This is likely a result of the complexity of ethanol actions, involving multiple neurotransmitter systems and responses covering the spectrum from drug seeking behaviors to neuropathological consequences of ethanol misuse. Regardless, the observed sex differences in ethanol withdrawal are noteworthy because they suggest that treatment of alcoholism should be managed differently in women than in men. Finally, it remains important to compare and contrast responses in males and females because recent studies of sex differences in basic physiology have made it clear that being female impacts health and disease.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / physiopathology*
  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / drug effects*
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics*


  • Ethanol