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Biological Basis of Sex Differences in the Propensity to Self-administer Cocaine

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Women are at greater risk for cocaine addiction than are men, and female rats similarly show a greater propensity to self-administer cocaine than do male rats. This could be due to the intrinsic sex differences in brain organization, to the activational effects of circulating gonadal hormones, or both. For example, estradiol enhances dopamine release in the striatum and nucleus accumbens, and facilitates the behavioral sensitization induced by repeated cocaine exposure. We report here that independent of circulating gonadal hormones, female rats acquire cocaine self-administration behavior more rapidly, and they self-administer more cocaine at a faster rate than do male rats. This indicates that there is an intrinsic difference between male and female subjects in the neural systems mediating drug-seeking behavior due to sexual differentiation of the brain. Furthermore, we find that the administration of estradiol to gonadectomized female subjects greatly facilitates the acquisition of cocaine self-administration. These data demonstrate that both intrinsic sex differences in brain organization and the actions of circulating estradiol contribute to increased vulnerability for cocaine use in female subjects.

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