Researchers from the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine have discovered that long-term abuse of stimulants has a radical impact on the brain volume of women, but not men, according to new research published online in the journal Radiology.
Radiology professor Dr. Jody Tanabe and her colleagues explained in a statement that brain structures involved in reward processing, decision-making and habit control continued to show vast changes, even following a prolonged period of abstinence from drug use.
Her team conducted structural brain magnetic resonance imaging exams in 127 men and women, including 28 women and 31 men who had previously been dependent on cocaine, amphetamines, and/or methamphetamine for an average of 15.7 years, as well as 28 women and 40 men of similar age who had no such history of drug use or abuse.
They found that after an average of 13.5 months of abstinence, females previously dependent on stimulants had significantly less gray matter volume than non-stimulant using women. This was found in several parts of their brains, including the frontal, limbic, and temporal regions.
Possible explanations for the gender-based differences
Dr. Michael Regner, a radiology resident and PhD graduate student at the university told redOrbit via email that the results were “somewhat surprising” and that he and his fellow researchers were not certain why these differences were more pronounced in women than men, especially sense men tended to have more drug-related symptoms.
“One possible explanation is that the brains of men and women respond differently to abstinence – different ‘recovery’ processes,” he explained. “Another possibility is that men and women are affected by long-term stimulant abuse in different ways, possibly due to hormonal and behavioral differences. Lastly, it is possible that men and women who develop a stimulant dependence problem have fundamentally different brain structures even prior to their first use – possibly due to a combination of genetic, hormonal, developmental, and personality differences.” However, he said, more research is needed to find out for certain.
The new study “adds to the growing body evidence that gender plays a significant role in brain structure and function in addiction,” Dr. Regner continued. While this research is completed, he said that he and Dr. Tanabe now plan to study the effects of alcohol and nicotine on a person’s brain and behavior over the next two years. “We have several experiments planned, and we hope our efforts will continue to shed light on the mechanisms of substance dependence,” he added.
(Image credit: Radiological Society of North America)