For years it has been said that females seemed to be more sensitive to cocaine than their male counterparts, and until now, this information was mostly anecdotal. However, a recent study performed by Dr. Paul Mermelstein and Dr. Robert Meisel of the University of Minnesota concluded that females actually are more sensitive to cocaine, and that it is the result of a number of different biological factors specific to women, that not only cause them to be more sensitive to cocaine, but also make them more susceptible to suffer from cocaine addiction.
Research Finding on Why Females are More Sensitive to Cocaine
The doctors overseeing the study, which was performed on male and female rats, discovered that the female sex hormone, estradiol was what caused female humans and female rats to be more sensitive to cocaine. They found that estradiol activates two receptors in the brain, the mGluR5 and the cannabinoid receptor CB1R, both, which caused an escalation in the female rats self-administering of the drug cocaine. These receptors were also the cause of heightened euphoria in female cocaine users and one of the reasons why escalation towards addiction occurs quicker.
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The study was performed, as many such studies are, on rats who were given the ability to push a lever which administered to them doses of cocaine. Both the male and female rats included in the study pushed the lever in order to gain access to the cocaine, but among the female rat population, when given the ability to self-administer over a number of days, they would increasingly seek out of the drug more so than the male rats.
It was also observed that the female rats showed signs of increased activity when the drugs were in their system and this is believed to be a result of the increased euphoria that they were experiencing at the time. It is widely understood that cocaine increases the locomotor activity, meaning that individuals who are partaking in cocaine usage will exhibit signs of hyper activity—but among female populations there is what is described as locomotor sensitization, meaning their activity level increases more dramatically than men.
The way that the researchers arrived at the conclusion that estradiol was causing the female rats to be more sensitive to cocaine than male rats, is by a process of elimination and through the understanding that estradiol is not coupled to the mGluR5 receptor in males as it is in females. The estrogen actually amplifies the effects of this receptor and therefore it causes females to be more susceptible to the effects of cocaine.
What Does This Mean?
Beyond a purely academic understanding of how women and men react to the drug cocaine, this study probably will not have much impact on real world events regarding drug usage. This may sound like a pessimistic outlook, but the reality is that women who hear this information and therefore do not use cocaine, were probably not going to ever use the drug in the first place. Whereas, to some women, who may have addictive tendencies, the fact that cocaine will get them higher than men, may actually be a selling point for their usage. They may see this as a positive thing and actually use cocaine because they know that the effects will be heightened.
This may sound strange, but that is the way addiction works. For instance, whenever there is a string of heroin overdoses in a particular location, opiate addicts will often times seek out that particular heroin because they know that it will get them high. They do not think, “I should stay away because this is dangerous,” but rather they are enticed by it because most people just cannot a) understand their addiction and b) fathom their own mortality.
The former part of that statement is interesting when it comes to addiction because even though this study shows that women are more susceptible to becoming cocaine addicts, for the individuals who are potential addicts, this information will appear to apply to anyone but themselves. No one sets out to become an addict and few believe that it will actually happen to them, but the reality is that many people unwittingly fall into addiction every year.
On a personal note, when I was 16 I once had a drug counselor tell me that I was more than likely going to become a heroin addict at some point if I didn’t get my act together. I remember how absurd his words were to me at the time because I didn’t think that could ever happen. I felt it was beneath me and that I would be able to pull myself back from the edge whenever I wanted to, but lo and behold not 2 years, later his prediction came true, and what’s more, my opioid addiction seemed to come out of nowhere.
Unfortunately, educating people on the dangers of drugs is not a way to prevent addiction. D.A.R.E. failed to do so, Just Say No failed to do, and so while we need to educate the general public on what it means to be addicted and what addiction truly is, we at the same time need to understand that academic understanding of addiction, will more than likely not produce a cure for addiction, nor will it keep people from risking their lives by trying these dangerous substances.
The research conducted at the University of Minnesota, while interesting, is simply that, an interesting tidbit of information, in the annals of addiction knowledge and lore.
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