You may not have realized it, but men and women are different. Really.
Though the statement may seem like the most unnecessary, obvious, expression since the dawn of time, it’s surprising how rarely the importance of these differences comes up when we talk about addiction. Still, there’s little doubt that if our hormones, brain development, and even our reaction the to exact same stories aren’t the same, the way we react to drugs, or to addiction treatment, are likely gender specific as well. In fact, while men are almost twice as likely to meet criteria for addiction, women seem to move from casual use to addiction more quickly. Let’s explore some addiction research findings that may tell us why.
Social stress, drug use, and addiction
If you’ve gone through high-school, you know that boys and girls have different sort of social interactions. Women develop tightly knit cliques that aim to protect them from being fully ostracized while keeping out those who may cause trouble within the fold.
Indeed, when researchers compared cocaine using men and women, they found much greater neural activation in the drug-seeking brain regions of women during social stress (things like exclusion, being put down, and such) than were found for men or for women who didn’t use drugs. Similar findings have been reported for a neuroprotective hormone called DHEAS, which was found to be lower in women and in cocaine addicts, signaling their increased vulnerability to stress-induced immune problems. It’s hard to tell which came first, but social stress “triggered” these women’s systems a lot more than it did men. And the differences change behaviors too – Research in monkeys found that while male monkeys used more cocaine if they were “losers” (lower on the social ladder), female monkeys who were “leaders” were found to use more cocaine when given a chance.
Obviously, social standing and events mean different things, and bring about different reactions to drugs, for men and women.
Drug use, the brain, and gender
Not only do men and women act differently when it comes to drugs, but differences have been found in the specific brain changes associated with drug exposure between the sexes!
Research in rats has shown that brain changes following prenatal (before birth) exposure to cocaine are different between males and females and that they interact with exposure to social stimulation. In humans, researchers found differences in brain volume, and its association with early trauma, emotional, and physical, neglect between boys and girls at risk for substance abuse problems. Other work found that the prenatal cocaine exposure was more greatly associated with memory problems in women than men.
Sex (gender) and drugs – the takeaway
So, men and women are not the same. Not a big surprise I know, but the specific ways in which the two sexes react to the intake of drugs and the differences in their responses to stress that may motivate them to use at different times can become important factors to consider both in prevention AND in addiction treatment setting. For instance, it seems that we’d want to look at the possibility that drug prevention efforts should look at social-standing among adolescents when determining might need the most attention. Also, if exposure to drugs affects the brain differently in the different sexes because of differences in the concentration of protective hormones, it’s possible that the specific aspects of treatment that require focus might be different too.
Some food for thought…