BIRCWH SCHOLARS UNRAVELING ADDICTION
More men suffer from addiction than women, but women tend to move more quickly from using substances to becoming addicted. Women more often find it harder to quit using. And they are more likely to relapse after a quit attempt.
Among the first six junior faculty graduates of our Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) Scholar Program funded by the National Institutes of Health, all former Scholars focused their work on addictive behaviors.
And this installment that profiles this impressive class of researchers, we visit with one of three women who have already contributed significant knowledge toward understanding the roots and dynamics of addiction and how we can better help people who struggle to escape its hold.
Dr. Marci Mitchell collaborated with her primary mentor Dr. Marc Potenza, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Women and Addictive Disorders for Women’s Health Research at Yale, to study sex differences on the neurobiology of how people make choices and how those choices affect the possibilities of future choices. She also studied the possible influence of sex hormones on the process of making choices.
“Addictions often develop into compulsive, repetitive behaviors that interfere with the ability of people to live balanced, safe lives,” Potenza said. “And addictions often possess biochemical components that we’re only beginning to understand. But they also often begin as simple choices to engage in behaviors that provide pleasure before becoming burdens and serious health threats.”
Dr. Potenza’s team looks to the origins of those behaviors for clues to prevention. “Research into what drives those choices and what role gender might play can help people to avoid bad decisions,” Potenza said.
Mitchell conducted analyses of women and men, both addicted to cocaine and without any addiction, in search of differences in brain activity as revealed on a scan while participating in a validated measure of choice behaviors. She conducted similar gender analyses on the brain activity of healthy men and women during a task designed to assess responses to reward and punishment.
She and Dr. Potenza found that women and men differed not only with respect to the brain regions involved in processing rewards and exerting control, but also with respect to the connectivity patterns of the regions during these processes. Furthermore, addiction seemed to influence these brain processes in different manners in women and men.
In addition, Mitchell worked with a group of international investigators to help document how to best assess choice impulsivity across species. And she was the primary author of two book chapters on the neuroscience of cocaine dependence, including sex differences.
“The contributions of Dr. Mitchell and others have given us a better understanding of the ways in which the brains of men and women experience the world in different ways,” Potenza said. “From the commonplace decisions and stresses we all face to the ravages of addiction, gender exerts an influence we continue to decipher for the benefit of everyone.”
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