Biological Basis of Sex Differences in Psychopharmacology

Volume 8 of the series Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences pp 119-140


Importance of the COMT Gene for Sex Differences in Brain Function and Predisposition to Psychiatric Disorders

  • Elizabeth M. TunbridgeAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry, University of Oxford
  • , Paul J. HarrisonAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry, University of Oxford

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As outlined elsewhere in this volume, sex differences can affect brain function and its dysfunction in psychiatric disorders. It is known that genetic factors contribute to these sex dimorphisms, but the individual genes have rarely been identified. The catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene, which encodes an enzyme that metabolises catechol compounds, including dopamine, is a leading candidate in this regard. COMT’s enzyme activity, and the neurochemistry and behaviour of COMT knockout mice are both markedly sexually dimorphic. Furthermore, genetic associations between COMT and psychiatric phenotypes frequently show differences between men and women. Although many of these differences are unconfirmed or minor, some appear to be of reasonable robustness and magnitude and are reviewed in this chapter. Sexually dimorphic effects of COMT are usually attributed to transcriptional regulation by oestrogens; however, a careful examination of the literature suggests that additional mechanisms are likely to be at least as important. Here, we review the evidence for a sexually dimorphic influence of COMT upon psychiatric phenotypes and brain function, and discuss potential mechanisms by which this may occur. We conclude that despite the evidence being incomplete, there are accumulating and in places compelling data showing that COMT has markedly sexually dimorphic effects on brain function and its dysfunction in psychiatric disorders. Although oestrogenic regulation of COMT is probably partially responsible for these sex differences, other mechanisms are likely also involved. Since sex differences in the genetic architecture of brain function and psychiatric disorders are the rule not the exception, we anticipate that additional evidence will emerge for sexual dimorphisms, not only in COMT but also in many other autosomal genes.


Dopamine Gender Genotype Polymorphism Sexual dimorphism