You probably know that abusing stimulants like cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine doesn’t go hand in hand with long-term brain health. But what if the side effects were worse for one sex? That’s what a new study in the journal Radiology suggests: After abstaining for more than a year, women who were previously hooked on stimulants had notably less gray matter volume in their brains, while once-dependent men didn’t see such a change.
Gray matter is where everything that makes up a person — senses, language, memory, behavior, and thought — is organized, the study’s author, Michael Regner, MD, and PhD graduate student at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Health. So if you lose gray matter, you could perform worse in whichever area of the brain (think: language, emotion, memory, or cognition) the matter was lost, he explains.
The interesting part of the study: “Men had, overall, more drug-related symptoms than women, so the results were somewhat surprising,” Regner says. Even more surprising: Substance dependence is generally more common in men than in women, he says. This could be for a whole slew of reasons, but some research finds that guys may be more likely to externalize (instead of internalize) emotions — which can lead to impulsive behavior, like drug use.
So why did women see the brain changes? Researchers aren’t quite sure — and it could be a question of the chicken and the egg. “We don’t know if the smaller gray matter volume was a result of stimulant dependence or if the smaller gray matter differences contributed to the development of stimulant dependence,” says Regner.
But there are a few other theories, too. For one, our brains could respond differently to abstinence and have different recovery processes, says Regner. This doesn’t necessarily mean one sex is better able to recover, but rather that behavioral, emotional, and personality differences alter the journey, he says.
Another possibility: Estrogen could increase a woman’s susceptibility to reward and drug relapse, Regner says. And it has been suggested that the ratio between female hormones like estrogen and progesterone and the phase of the menstrual cycle may play a role in the difference between the sexes, he adds.
The good news: While the evidence is still conflicting (several studies do show long-lasting brain changes among substance abusers), some research also suggests that your brain can partially — and even completely — recover with abstinence, Regner says.
And that goes for guys and gals.
[h/t: Yahoo Health]