Women are generally more vulnerable to cocaine addiction than men, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications. They’re also more likely to use cocaine at an earlier age, take drugs in larger quantities, have greater difficulty staying sober and are at an increased risk of relapse.
But why? Well, the reason seems to come down to biology.
A Look at the Biology
Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have found that hormonal fluctuations in a woman’s menstrual cycle – specifically during the high-estrogen phase – greatly intensifies the brain’s dopamine reward pathway, enabling the woman to experience an increase in pleasure.
To arrive at this conclusion, Dr. Erin Calipari, the study’s lead author, used male and female mice – they have the same brain organization and dopamine system as humans – to observe how cocaine affects the brain’s reward pathway.
What her team found was that the increased estrogen levels in females affected not only the quantity of dopamine released to their brain in response to the cocaine, but also how long the dopamine stayed active in their brain cells. As a result, the pleasurable “high” cocaine produced was stronger and lasted longer, leading the female mice to associate the drug with greater enjoyment and therefore making them more likely to get hooked.
Should We Adjust Our Cocaine Rehab Treatment Methods?
“Our study will change the way we think about addiction research to emphasize the need to further understand female subjects, as most research on addiction has been conducted in male subjects,” Calipari said in a statement.
This, in turn, will affect treatment methods, since what could work for males might not be as effective for females.
“We need to consider sex as a variable when talking about addiction treatments, and we need to have more specialized treatment for drug abusers because the mechanisms that are driving the addiction are likely different,” she added.
Calipari is now expanding her current research to determine whether birth control pills can help female substance abusers, since the medication can help stabilize the fluctuations experienced through the female hormonal cycle. According to her, women have estrogen spikes about 10 days out of the month.
“The question now is about the underlying problem here,” she said. “Is it the fact that estrogens are there or not, or is it the fact that they’re fluctuating in this cyclical pattern? If the latter is the problem, we can start to do hormonal replacement therapy and see if that helps.”
Additional Reading: Mars vs. Venus – How Does Gender Affect Prescription Drugs?
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