Background: Alcohol abuse, especially when experienced in multiple cycles of chronic abuse and withdrawal, leads to a sensitization of central nervous system hyperexcitability that may culminate in overt expression of seizures. In spite of the growing prevalence of alcohol abuse and dependence in females shown in recent epidemiologic studies, evidence of sexual dimorphism in the expression of alcohol withdrawal-induced seizures and the development of seizure sensitization following multiple cycles of ethanol (EtOH) exposure and withdrawal has not been examined in either animal models or in clinical reports.
Methods: Subjects in these experiments were male and female C3H/Hecr mice. The female mice were intact or ovariectomized, with ovariectomized mice receiving 17-beta-estradiol or placebo pellets. All mice were exposed to 4 cycles of exposure to 16-hour EtOH vapor, separated by 8-hour withdrawal periods. During each 8-hour withdrawal, hourly assessment of seizure propensity was assessed as handling-induced convulsions. Additional assessments were taken up to 72 hours after the final EtOH withdrawal cycle.
Results: Male and female mice showed similar seizure propensity during an initial withdrawal from chronic EtOH. Across subsequent withdrawal cycles, however, male mice exhibited a robust increase in seizure severity beginning with the third withdrawal cycle. In marked contrast, female mice failed to demonstrate sensitization of seizure severity. The lack of seizure sensitization following up to 4 cycles of alcohol exposure and withdrawal could not be explained by hormonal status (presence or absence of estrogen) or by sex differences in blood alcohol levels.
Conclusions: Male and female mice exposed to the same number of cycles of EtOH withdrawal demonstrate differences in expression of seizures. Males show the typical sensitization of seizures, or kindling response, which has been reported clinically as well as in animal models, but females do not. The reason for the lack of seizure sensitization in female mice remains to be elucidated, but may be related to sex differences in alcohol effects on excitatory/inhibitory neurotransmission, rather than to hormonal or blood alcohol level differences.