Alcoholism is a complex disorder that represents an important contributor to health problems worldwide and that is difficult to encompass with a single preclinical model. Additionally, alcohol (ethanol) influences the function of many neurotransmitter systems, with the interaction at gamma-aminobutyric acid(A) (GABA(A)) receptors being integral for ethanol's reinforcing and several withdrawal-related effects. Given that some steroid derivatives exert rapid membrane actions as potent positive modulators of GABA(A) receptors and exhibit a similar pharmacological profile to that of ethanol, studies in the laboratory manipulated GABAergic steroid levels and determined the impact on ethanol's rewarding- and withdrawal-related effects. Manipulations focused on the progesterone metabolite allopregnanolone (ALLO), since it is the most potent endogenous GABAergic steroid identified. The underlying hypothesis is that fluctuations in GABAergic steroid levels (and the resultant change in GABAergic inhibitory tone) alter sensitivity to ethanol, leading to changes in the positive motivational or withdrawal-related effects of ethanol. This review describes results that emphasize sex differences in the effects of ALLO and the manipulation of its biosynthesis on alcohol reward-versus withdrawal-related behaviors, with females being less sensitive to the modulatory effects of ALLO on ethanol-drinking behaviors but more sensitive to some steroid manipulations on withdrawal-related behaviors. These findings imply the existence of sex differences in the sensitivity of GABA(A) receptors to GABAergic steroids within circuits relevant to alcohol reward versus withdrawal. Thus, sex differences in the modulation of GABAergic neurosteroids may be an important consideration in understanding and developing therapeutic interventions in alcoholics.
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