By Topher Avery January 15, 2017
A study released last November suggested that the sex of an individual does play a role in determining susceptibility to addiction. However, the effect that sex has on the likelihood of addiction is more complicated than initially believed. As additional data is gathered, it becomes clearer that many factors come together to determine how susceptible a person will be to addiction.
Historically, addiction research has been problematic, often neglecting issues related to sex and gender. Addiction was, at one point, considered to be a ‘male’ problem, creating a scarcity of available data on female addiction. In more recent years, efforts have been made to compensate for this deficiency.
In October 2014, the National Institute of Health rolled out policies that required any preclinical study it funded to include a balanced number of male and female cells or animals as part of a comprehensive plan to increase sex and gender inclusion in scientific research.
Common sex-correlated trends
Research has demonstrated that sex does have an effect on substance abuse. Women tend to have a shorter amount of time between their first experience with a substance and addiction, for example.
The November 2016 study explained that this behavior may have roots in neurobiology. According to the study, when the pattern of dopamine activation shifts from one location in the brain (the nucleus accumbens) to a different location in the brain (the dorsolateral striatum), behavior shifts from casual use to addiction. Among females in rat and human population samples, this shift occurs more quickly than in males, meaning that females begin showing compulsive substance intake sooner than their male counterparts.
The study urges against the conclusion that the differences in addictive behavior between sexes are determined solely by neurobiology, however, emphasizing that there are also sociocultural influences that must be considered. For example, the study explained thatwomen face a greater stigma than men when it comes to addiction, and men are provided with more social support during recovery, which might contribute to a higher rate of relapse for women.
A more complex spectrum
However, the study cautioned relying too heavily on a bimodal gender model, when considering addiction, will lead to an inaccurate understanding of the difference in addictive behaviors among sexes. In particular, it emphasizes a better understanding of what scientists mean when they say that there are differences between the brains of women and men; they do not mean that a person’s brain must be categorized as wholly “male” or “female.”
The study explains that many of the sex differences in the brain do not exist in a bimodal distribution, but instead are arranged along a spectrum. There are many different areas of the brain, and a certain area might display characteristics that are typically more closely associated with femininity or masculinity.
However, research revealed that each person’s brain is a collection of distinct brain areas. Depending on the individual, some of these areas tend to be more feminine, while others are
more masculine. In other words, even within a single person, classifying a brain as “masculine” or “feminine” evokes a binary understanding that does not reflect the actual complexity of gender-associated characteristics, behaviors and categorizations.
A tapestry of components
Ultimately, the study suggested that addiction is best understood as an outcome that is determined by a variety of interacting factors. No single dispositive element can determine whether or not someone will become addicted. Even when a person is categorized as female or male, their susceptibility to addiction must be determined by how this single variable interacts with a variety of other variables, including myriad social, economic and biological factors.
The study also stated that even singular factors, such as sex, must be understood to be more complex than a simple binary. With more research – especially research involving diverse samples of people – a better understanding of the intricate tapestry of variables that determine whether or not an individual will be susceptible to addiction may be achieved.