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.