Sex differences in neural mechanisms mediating reward and addiction

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2019 Jan;44(1):166-183. doi: 10.1038/s41386-018-0125-6. Epub 2018 Jun 19.


There is increasing evidence in humans and laboratory animals for biologically based sex differences in every phase of drug addiction: acute reinforcing effects, transition from occasional to compulsive use, withdrawal-associated negative affective states, craving, and relapse. There is also evidence that many qualitative aspects of the addiction phases do not differ significantly between males and females, but one sex may be more likely to exhibit a trait than the other, resulting in population differences. The conceptual framework of this review is to focus on hormonal, chromosomal, and epigenetic organizational and contingent, sex-dependent mechanisms of four neural systems that are known-primarily in males-to be key players in addiction: dopamine, mu-opioid receptors (MOR), kappa opioid receptors (KOR), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). We highlight data demonstrating sex differences in development, expression, and function of these neural systems as they relate-directly or indirectly-to processes of reward and addictive behavior, with a focus on psychostimulants and opioids. We identify gaps in knowledge about how these neural systems interact with sex to influence addictive behavior, emphasizing throughout that the impact of sex can be highly nuanced and male/female data should be reported regardless of the outcome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / metabolism*
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / metabolism
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Receptors, Dopamine / metabolism
  • Receptors, Opioid / metabolism*
  • Reward*
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Receptors, Dopamine
  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Dopamine