Stimulants ‘Significantly’ Damage Women’s Brains, but Treatment Can Help Restore Function

Abuse of stimulants in the form of cocaine, amphetamines or methamphetamine causes much greater damage to women’s brains than to men’s. That’s the conclusion of research findings released in July in the journal Radiology, based on a study conducted at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. The team of researchers, led by Dr. Jody Tanabe, MD, a professor of radiology and vice chairperson of research, set out to explore how addictive behaviors might affect brain volume and how these effects might correlate with gender. They found that women who abused stimulants showed drastic reductions in gray matter—and this in contrast to men who showed “no significant brain differences” as a result of stimulant abuse, as well as to healthy women who did not abuse drugs, Dr. Tanabe said in a July 14 article in the online publication Healthline. “We found that after an average of 13.5 months of abstinence, women who were previously dependent on stimulants had significantly less gray matter volume in several brain areas … important for decision-making, emotion, reward processing, and habit formation,” Dr. Tanabe said. She and her colleagues reached this conclusion after analyzing MRI results for 127 men and women, 59 of whom (28 women and 31 men) had histories of long-term stimulant abuse, having been dependent on cocaine, amphetamines and/or methamphetamine for an average of 15.7 years. (The other 68 male and female test subjects were healthy and had no history of drug addiction.)

What Does Less Gray Brain Matter Mean?

Reduced gray brain matter in women who abuse drugs could mean a number of things. The authors of this study found, for example, that less gray matter accompanied behaviors associated with addiction, such as greater impulsivity and more responsiveness to reward stimuli. Under normal conditions, for instance, certain reward pathways in the brain regulate motivation to stimuli like food, sex or social interactions. Reduced brain matter in women aligned with heightened behavioral response to such rewards, however — and with heavier drug abuse. Such findings are still preliminary steps in the direction of understanding what less gray brain matter really means for women who abuse drugs, the authors of the study suggested. Do drastic brain changes predate women’s first use of a stimulant drug? Do they develop during chemical dependency? Or, do they result from abstinence? The lead author of the study, Dr. Michael Regner, MD, a radiology resident at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine and a Ph.D. graduate student, surmised that the brain changes his team observed in women were “likely some combination of all of these.”

Substance Abuse Treatment, Abstinence Can Help Brain Recover

In the absence of empirically tested answers to such questions, there is evidence to suggest that substance abuse treatment for stimulant use helps the brain regain gray matter lost in the course of chemical dependency and its development. In a previous study, for example, structural MRIs of the brains of people who had been abstinent from cocaine for only 20 days showed reductions in gray matter density, but at six months of abstinence or after, gray matter density in those who previously abused cocaine had returned to near-normal levels. Dr. Regner said that as of now there are no “robust longitudinal studies to demonstrate how the brain changes over time from first use to dependence to long-term abstinence.” But he also noted that research elsewhere confirms that the brain has some inherent capacity to self-correct and recover. Indeed, research has shown how various therapeutic interventions for addiction and other mental disorders — for example, practices like meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction or self-regulation therapy — do lead to increases in gray matter density. In other words, for women whose abuse of stimulants and/or other drugs has caused brain damage, treatment can help. Sources:

  • “‘Women’s Brains Affected More by Drug Abuse, Study Says,” Healthline
  •  “Sex Differences in Gray Matter Changes and Brain-Behavior Relationships in Patients with Stimulant      Dependence,” Radiology
  • “Imaging the Addicted Human Brain,” Science & Practice Perspectives.
  • “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density,” Psychiatry Research
  • “Self-regulation therapy increases frontal gray matter in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: evaluation by voxel-based morphometry,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
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