Anyone can get hooked on drugs and alcohol, but addiction isn’t gender-blind. When it comes to how substance abuse can affect your brain, your gender matters—regardless of whether the "drug of choice” is cocaine, heroin, alcohol, or another substance.
Mounting scientific evidence attests to this gender disparity in how addiction affects men's and women’s brains, starting with more recent findings into the neurological effects of stimulants. What follows are key highlights of these findings.
How stimulants like cocaine, amphetamines, and meth affect men and women differently.
According to a 2015 study published in the journal Radiology, long-term abuse of stimulants like cocaine, amphetamines, and/or methamphetamines has a distinct impact on the brains of men and women. In the study, researchers from the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine examined the structural brain magnetic imaging (MRI) scans of men and women who had been using stimulants for nearly 16 years and who were similar in age. The researchers were then able to compare these scans to those for healthy men and women without a drug abuse problem.
They found that recovering female users of stimulants "showed significant loss of gray matter volume in their brains" while recovering male users "demonstrated no significant brain differences compared to their healthy counterparts." In fact, for women with a previous dependency on stimulants, there were apparently "widespread brain differences"—especially in the frontal, limbic, and temporal regions of the brain—whereas the men showed virtually "no significant brain differences" in these same areas.
These neurological differences in how stimulant abuse affects the brain have profound implications for behavior. The regions most affected in women govern critical behavioral functions like impulse control, decision-making abilities, reward processing, habit formation, and the emotions.
Dr. Jody Tanabe, the study’s senior author and a professor of radiology at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, summed up the behavioral implications this way: "Lower gray matter volumes in women who had been stimulant dependent were associated with more impulsivity, greater behavioral approach to reward, and also more severe drug use."
In other words, heightened sensitivity to drug cues, a quicker onset of addiction, and greater addiction severity seem to be an extension of how stimulant abuse disproportionately (and adversely) affects women’s brains.
This finding might be a biological explanation for why women with drug abuse problems generally tend to escalate their rate of consumption more rapidly than men and why, once addicted, find it harder to quit than men as well.
How alcohol abuse affects men and women differently.
It's not just stimulants that discriminate based on gender—the effects of alcohol on your brain will vary depending on whether you have an extra "X" chromosome.
Female alcoholics reportedly have a "significantly smaller" corpus callosum than their male counterparts, whose corpus callosum is similar in size to that of non-alcoholic men. The corpus callosum is a central region deep in the brain that is responsible for multiple functions, including transmitting cognitive, visual, and sensory information between the brain’s left and right hemispheres.
One area in which female alcoholics actually fare better is glucose metabolism. The brains of female alcoholics don't suffer from a reduction in glucose metabolism, whereas the brains of male alcoholics do. Glucose metabolism is critical to healthy brain function as a key component of brain cell maintenance and regeneration. Disruptions in glucose metabolism are associated with various brain disorders, including alcoholism.
How heroin and opiate prescription painkillers affect the brains of men and women differently.
An area of growing study is how heroin and opiate prescription painkillers affect men's and women’s brains and the potential differences. In this case, some of the same trends that pertain to other substances of abuse seem to apply. For example, women seem to get hooked on opiates more quickly than men (as with other drugs), and this general trend may point to some underlying biological differences in how heroin and opiate prescription painkillers affect women’s brains.
Women also experience greater pain relief from opiate painkillers—"perhaps because estrogen, which fluctuates during menstrual cycles, modulates the pain response" and, "once addicted, they are more likely to relapse—particularly in the middle of the menstrual cycle, when glucose in the brain is lower." (Glucose aids impulse control, after all).
So, what do these findings mean for people who suffer from addictions?
With further progress into the gender-based mechanisms that cause and perpetuate this disease, we can begin to develop more specialized treatments that directly address the complex neurological roots of this devastating brain disorder. That can only be good news for anyone who struggles with substance abuse.
Want more insights on substance abuse and mental health? Check out these signs alcohol might be holding you back (even if you're not addicted), then explore the future of mental health in a social media-driven world.