Drug abuse affects the brains of men and women differently, according to studies

The use of psychoactive drugs is a major public health problem causing personal and emotional costs. The negative consequences derived from the use of stimulants, depressants or disturbances of the nervous system occur in people of both genders. But did you know that drug abuse affects the brains of men and women differently?

Both biological sex and gender (understood as a sociocultural construct) influence the consumption patterns of men and women and the effects they experience. Sex hormones, the different metabolism processes of the body and even certain psychological aspects make the experience of one and the other different.

How do drugs affect the brain?

The brain is made up of networks of neurons that communicate with each other by releasing neurotransmitters. When a person uses drugs, this communication between neurons is altered, affecting various regions of the brain:

  • Drug abuse generates an overactivation in the brain's reward system. In this way, activities that were previously pleasant (such as eating, socializing or having sex) are no longer rewarding, because the circuit adapts and reduces its sensitivity.
  • Continued drug use affects the functioning of the amygdala (a region related to feelings of anxiety, restlessness, and irritability). Thus, the person ends up needing the substance to alleviate that emotional discomfort.
  • The prefrontal cortex (involved in organizing, planning and decision-making tasks) is also affected. Drug abuse results in a decreased ability to control impulses and a compulsive search for the substance.

Why is the brain different from men and women?

The brains of men and women show more similarities than differences. Nevertheless, drug abuse does not affect both genders equally.

It has been found that women have a greater facility to develop an addiction, that is, they need less doses and less time of consumption. In addition, they show symptoms of craving to a greater extent than men. They even find it more difficult to maintain abstinence.

The female population is more sensitive to the effects of certain drugs, therefore there is an increased risk of toxicity and overdose. Sex hormones have been found to play an important role in all of these processes.

Effects of the main drugs on the brain

Although drug abuse affects the brains of men and women differently, not all substances act in the same way. Here we show you the main effects and consequences of some of them.


Women and men metabolize alcohol differently, so that the former are poisoned with lower intakes. As we have mentioned, they are more likely to develop a dependency, even with lower consumption.

In addition, the death rate in the female population is significantly higher than among those men with alcohol dependence. However, men present a greater alteration in brain electrical activity after continued use of the substance.

Find out more: How does alcohol affect the brain?


Some research suggests that women may experience higher levels of stress and anxiety during nicotine withdrawal, so for them, quitting smoking becomes more complicated and increases the risk of relapse.

On the other hand, although the risk of death from diseases related to smoking is similar in both sexes, women who take oral contraceptives are exposed to a greater risk of developing diseases of the circulatory system.


The effects of marijuana also show differences based on sex. This substance deteriorates spatial memory in women, to a greater extent. In addition, they have a greater risk of presenting structural brain abnormalities after prolonged use.

On the other hand, men who smoke marijuana more often have a problem using other substances. The severity of the dependency seems to be greater in them, but they develop the disorder more quickly after the first use.

Keep reading: This is how cannabis affects the brain


Some studies have found that women who abuse stimulants such as cocaine have a critical long-term reduction in gray matter volume, in addition to show significant structural alterations in brain areas involved in reward, learning and executive functions.

Additionally, they are more vulnerable to the rewarding effects of the substance, so they feel more desire to consume and are more likely to relapse.

Can the effect on the brain be reversed?

Drugs have very long-term effects on the brain and it is not yet clear to what extent these changes are reversible. For example, the reduction in brain volume due to stimulant use continues after more than a year of abstinence.

What is clear is that drug addiction is a chronic disease and the risk of recurrence is high.

Both men and women are victims of drugs

Undoubtedly, substance use is harmful to all individuals. However, drug abuse affects the brains of men and women differently and this is a relevant fact for the treatment of addictions.

Knowing the particularities of each sex is essential to carry out an adequate approach and achieve rehabilitation.