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Gender-Based Addiction Study Shows Differences in Brain Scans

Sex plays a big part in drug addiction, so it seems. Men and women react differently to two known drug and alcohol stimuli. Women are more likely to indulge in drugs or alcohol based on stress, whereas men reach for their drug of choice based upon drug cues.

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine set out to prove this difference in a recent study; they were rewarded with some rather consequential findings, which may dictate how men and women receive treatment for addictions in the future.

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Jan. 31, online), was conducted by  Yale senior author Rajita Sinha and supporting authors Cheryle M. Lacadie, Kwang-ik Adam Hong, Keri L. Tuit, and Robert K. Fulbright. Support came from: Women’s Health and Research, the Yale Stress Center, the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the National Institutes of Health, and NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health.

Sinha and co-authors tested 76 subjects to determine their reactions to typical drug-inducing stimuli. The subjects were all cocaine or alcohol users, but 36 were occasional drinkers and 30 suffered from cocaine addiction. The occasional drinking group was treated as the control group and the cocaine addicts were thought of as the experimental group.

Each subject underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans during psychological tests. MRIs measure the radio frequency of the brain to determine what areas of the brain are being used in response to questions or other stimuli. The results of an MRI can show either problem in brain activity make-up, as in medical testing, or can showcase the normal patterns in similar groups, as it is used in scientific testing.

Since every person is different, the subjects were psychologically tested to determine the most likely triggers for their individualized stressors, like a dog barking, or drug cues, like a bottle of beer. Researchers then chose tests based on each subject’s individual indication of triggers, using both stress and drug cues.

Unsurprisingly, those who suffered from cocaine addiction showed greater response to each cue than did the occasional alcohol users. It has been established in previous studies that higher levels of addiction produced higher levels of brain activity in the reward centers of the brain, which makes drug and alcohol abuse more difficult to overcome over time.

However, researchers found new information in this study. The actual cues that made the brain react differed entirely by sex. Each male subject responded with brain activity to drug cues such as pictures of needles or of bottles of beer. Women, on the other hand, showed higher levels of brain activity when being stressed.

It is important to note: the regions of the brain that experienced the most activity were similar in both men and women; the addictive centers of the brain lit up in each. It was only the stimuli that differed: drug cues for men; stress for women.

The findings are remarkable because they indicate that men and women should be treated differently in treatment programs, such as in the cocaine treatment program at Vista Taos Renewal Center in New Mexico. Renewal centers such as this one may need to shift the focus from an all-encompassing treatment program to gender-based treatments.

For example, using the study information, a man suffering from cocaine addiction may receive a traditional cocaine treatment program based on the 12-step program; a woman may focus on stress reduction options.

The theory behind these differing treatments is twofold: The male brain may respond more positively to a program based in cognitive-behavioral therapy, like the 12-step program, because talking through issues with visual cues and other drug cues may help them overcome them. Females who work on stress-reduction related to their individualized stressors should be better able to resist the stressors as they present in real life, based on the study’s findings.

Moving forward in cocaine treatment programs, it may be beneficial to the treatment centers, the staff and those suffering from cocaine addiction to center on individualized care with a focus on gender-based treatment. Another option for treatment centers is to continue the more centralized treatment plans for men and women with additional work on gender-based treatments for individualized cues or stressors; this two-pronged approach may help those addicted to cocaine better.

If you or a loved one suffers from cocaine addiction, contact a cocaine treatment program center today. Staff at cocaine treatment programs can assist you in your goals to kick cocaine addiction and get back on track to a healthy life. For more articles covering varying drug and alcohol addiction topics, please visit the resources section of the website.

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