Sex-dependent diversity in ventral tegmental dopaminergic neurons and developmental programing: A molecular, cellular and behavioral analysis.
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The knowledge that diverse populations of dopaminergic neurons within the ventral tegmental area (VTA) can be distinguished in terms of their molecular, electrophysiological and functional properties, as well as their differential projections to cortical and subcortical regions has significance for key brain functions, such as the regulation of motivation, working memory and sensorimotor control. Almost without exception, this understanding has evolved from landmark studies performed in the male sex. However, converging evidence from both clinical and pre-clinical studies illustrates that the structure and functioning of the VTA dopaminergic systems are intrinsically different in males and females. This may be driven by sex differences in the hormonal environment during adulthood ('activational' effects) and development (perinatal and/or pubertal 'organizational' effects), as well as genetic factors, especially the SRY gene on the Y chromosome in males, which is expressed in a sub-population of adult midbrain dopaminergic neurons. Stress and stress hormones, especially glucocorticoids, are important factors which interact with the VTA dopaminergic systems in order to achieve behavioral adaptation and enable the individual to cope with environmental change. Here, also, there is male/female diversity not only during adulthood, but also in early life when neurobiological programing by stress or glucocorticoid exposure differentially impacts dopaminergic developmental trajectories in male and female brains. This may have enduring consequences for individual resilience or susceptibility to pathophysiological change induced by stressors in later life, with potential translational significance for sex bias commonly found in disorders involving dysfunction of the mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic systems. These findings highlight the urgent need for a better understanding of the sexual dimorphism in the VTA if we are to improve strategies for the prevention and treatment of debilitating conditions which differentially affect men and women in their prevalence and nature, including schizophrenia, attention/deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, depression and addiction.