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Cocaine Affects Women's Brain Differently

Gender-Specific Treatment Strategies May Help

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Updated February 12, 2014

An Emory University School of Medicine study indicates that cocaine-dependent women experience reactions in the brain that are different from men, suggesting that gender-specific treatment strategies for cocaine abuse may be helpful. Cerebral blood flow, which shows neural activity in the brain, changes differently for women addicted to cocaine than for cocaine-dependent men, the study found.

Dr. Clinton Kilts and his colleagues used positron emission tomography (PET) to examine blood flow related to drug craving in the brains of eight abstinent, cocaine-craving women and compared those results to samples from eight matched cocaine-craving men who underwent the same process.

To provoke cocaine craving in the participants, researchers used a one-minute narration describing past cocaine use. They made PET images as the participants listened to the drug stories and compared them to images made when they listened to drug-neurtal narratives.

According to a NIDA report, "the researchers found that cue-induced craving was associated with greater activation of the central sulcus and frontal cortex in women, and less activation of the amygdala, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral cingulated cortex. Both men and women demonstrated activation of the right nucleus accumbens."

"Perhaps most notable was the neural activity measured in the amygdalas of study subjects; the women experienced a marked decrease in activity, in contrast to the increase observed in men," the report said.

The amygdala is involved in controlling social and sexual behavior and emotions. The other related areas of the brain are involved in emotion and cognition.

The researchers concluded that the differences detected in the study may support the need to develop gender-specific strategies to treat drug abuse.

Source: The study was published in the February 2004 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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