Females exhibit more intese subjective cannabis cravings than males

The study was published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence (April 2020) by researcher Shikha Prashad, PhD, and Francesca Filbey, PhD, professor and director of cognitive neuroscience research of addictive disorders at Center for BrainHealth.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure neural responses, study participants were exposed to their most commonly used cannabis equipment, preferred fruit or neutral objects (such as a pencil) to compare their cravings. Subjective craving was measured before and after the fMRI scan. Sex-related differences in neural and behavioral response to cannabis cues and cannabis use were examined and measured in 112 heavy cannabis users (58 males and 54 females), using principal component analysis to determine the relative contributions of neural and behavioral response and cannabis use measures (e.g., years of cannabis use, grams of cannabis use in the preceding two months, and THC metabolite level).

Researchers also found preliminary evidence that ovarian hormones may modulate this differential response and may be related to different levels of estrogen. Further investigation is needed in this area.

“The greatest contribution of this study was to understand the differences in the effects of cannabis use in men and women on brain activity and subjective response. This research has moved the needle forward in accounting for these individual differences in the development and administration of interventions to help improve clinical outcomes for everyone, particularly women,” said Dr. Prashad.

Addressing sex-related differences in response to substance use is crucial given that, although women in general start using cannabis at a later age than men, they progress more quickly through the milestones of addiction and ultimately enter into treatment programs at a younger age, a phenomenon known as telescoping. Women also report greater withdrawal symptoms and higher negative impact of withdrawal. The study also helped address a historical underrepresentation of women in research studies. These considerations have important clinical relevance as studies report poorer outcomes for women in psychological and pharmacological treatments.

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