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Women and Addictive Disorders Core

WHRY’s Women and Addictive Disorders Core explores how sex and gender can affect risk for addictive behaviors. Led by Dr. Marc Potenza, Professor of Psychiatry and the Director of Psychiatry’s Division of Addictions Research at Yale, the Core brings together experts from different fields to explore the topic of addictions across the lifespan. The team draws on the latest genetic techniques, brain imaging technology, and cognitive and clinical tests. Using all these tools, they identify opportunities for sex and gender-specific interventions to address the causes of illness and death due to addictions. Topic areas include substance use involving nicotine, cannabinoids, opioids, prescription drugs, and alcohol as well as behavioral addictions involving overeating, social media, and gambling.

Practical Findings

The Rise of Internet Addiction and Screen Media Activity

Internet addiction is an emerging global health problem as more people become reliant on online activities and interactions. Research conducted by the Women and Addictive Disorders Core shows that women are more likely to become addicted to social media, while men are more likely to experience problems with online gaming use.

Research conducted by Dr. Potenza and his team found women and men become addicted to internet use through different pathways. Men are more likely to be attracted to the competitive structures provided by online gaming and experience higher cravings that lead to activations of reward-related brain regions. Women, however, are often more sensitive to social signals, put higher value on relationships, and seek the interpersonal communication provided by social media. Girls are also more likely than boys to be first exposed to social media at a younger age, spend more time on the sites, and as a result are more vulnerable to developing a social media addiction.

Findings generated by the core show gender-related differences in internet gaming disorder and social media addiction likely involve biological, psychological, and social factors. These data have the practical benefit of giving policy makers, parents, and educators the gender-informed perspective necessary to teach safe internet use, monitor online activities, and develop intervention programs.

The research core also found gender differences in how screen time and social media use affects brain development of children. Dr. Potenza’s team uncovered patterns of brain development suggesting that children who spend more time online exhibit similar brain activity patterns to those who participate in underage alcohol use. This work suggests a potential neurodevelopmental mechanism that could make children with high screen use more vulnerable as an adult to other addictions, including alcohol, drugs, and internet gaming. Since childhood is a crucial time for brain development, these findings have practical implications in recommended screen time and social media use for children.

Cannabis use

With the rise in legalization of recreational cannabis, understanding the effects of this substance and potential sex and gender differences have become topics of greater investigation for the Women and Addictive Disorders Core.

While previous studies have shown a link between regular cannabis use and the severity of problem gambling and mental disorders, Dr. Potenza’s team found that long-term cannabis use may affect the severity of problem gambling and specific psychiatric disorders, including major depression and panic disorder, and their team is working to understand the role sex and gender play in this relationship. Studies already have shown women have a greater sensitivity to cannabis, and there is a greater association between the severity of problem gambling and major depression in women.

As online gaming and cannabis use is legalized in more U.S. states, understanding links between cannabis use and the development of psychiatric disorders is important in knowing how to regulate substance use in gaming facilities and shape public policy and intervention programs.

By bringing together researchers of different disciplines, we have created a unique opportunity to uncover the many ways in which women and men and girls and boys differ in regard to specific addictions.

Marc N. Potenza, PhD, MD, Director, Women and Addictive Disorders Core, Women's Health Research at Yale