Drug Abuse a Bigger Drain on Women's Brains

Drug Abuse a Bigger Drain on Women’s Brains

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This post was originally published on August 25, 2015.

There are plenty of areas of gender inequality that still need to be addressed. Just to cite a few examples, women are still earning less than men, directing fewer movies than men and shivering at the office because dudes insist on keeping the AC at Arctic-level temperatures. One thing women appear to be stuck with, though, is that the symptoms of drug abuse are more severe in women than  men. A new study helps explain why.

Shades of Gray

According to researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, women previously addicted to cocaine, meth or amphetamines show a significantly smaller amount of gray matter in the brain than men who also abused those drugs. In fact, the addicted men’s brains looked just like those of a healthy, non-druggin’ guy! Whoever said biology isn’t sexist?

What is gray matter, you may ask? It’s the area of the brain that basically makes our basic senses work properly (you can thank gray matter for your ability to see, smell, hear, touch, talk and cry at sappy romantic comedies) and controls our muscles. Seems like having an adequate amount of the gray stuff is pretty important.

The CU researchers analyzed MRI brain scans of 28 ladies and 31 gentlemen—all of whom had previously abused the aforementioned drugs for at least 16 years but had been sober for over a year at the time of the scan. The study also included a control group of 68 healthy, non-addicts who were similar in age to those who had been addicted to drugs. Compared to both the healthy group and the male former addicts in the study, the used-to-be druggie gals had measurably less gray matter.

“Vast changes in [gray matter volume]were observed in women with stimulant dependence after prolonged abstinence, but were not observed in men,” the study concludes.

Harder to Quit

Another specialist in this field, Professor Vaughn Rees from the Harvard School of Medicine, points out that this particular group of women may have had less gray stuff to begin with, regardless of their coke habit. In any case, the study supports the theory that women and men have brain differences that potentially impact the propensity to abuse drugs, the side effects of drug use and the ability of an addict to get sober.

“These findings may help to shed light on the greater severity of drug-use symptoms experienced by females, including escalation of drug use, larger quantities used and greater difficulty quitting compared with males,” Rees says.

The sample size for the study was really small so it seems iffy to jump to conclusions. And let’s not start thinking men folk can snort away and their brains will emerge perfectly intact when they’re done partying or that women who have successfully gotten sober after many years of drug abuse can’t still perform basic human functions. Having said all that, the best way to keep your brain in tiptop shape is probably to just…not do a shitload of drugs. In that respect, there is no gray area.

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Mary Patterson Broome is the Editor-in-Chief of RehabReviews.com and After Party Magazine and has also written for Women's Health Magazine Online, AOL and WE TV. She has been performing stand-up comedy at clubs, colleges, casinos and festivals across the country and internationally for over a decade. Originally from southern Alabama, she now calls Los Angeles home.