Sex differences and ovarian hormones in animal models of drug dependence

Horm Behav. 2010 Jun;58(1):44-56. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.10.001. Epub 2009 Oct 8.


Increasing evidence indicates the presence of sex differences in many aspects of drug abuse. Most studies reveal that females exceed males during the initiation, escalation, extinction, and reinstatement (relapse) of drug-seeking behavior, but males are more sensitive than females to the aversive effects of drugs such as drug withdrawal. Findings from human and animal research indicate that circulating levels of ovarian steroid hormones account for these sex differences. Estrogen (E) facilitates drug-seeking behavior, while progesterone (P) and its metabolite, allopregnanalone (ALLO), counteract the effects of E and reduce drug seeking. Estrogen and P influence other behaviors that are affiliated with drug abuse such as drug-induced locomotor sensitization and conditioned place preference. The enhanced vulnerability to drug seeking in females vs. males is also additive with the other risk factors for drug abuse (e.g., adolescence, sweet preference, novelty reactivity, and impulsivity). Finally, treatment studies using behavioral or pharmacological interventions, including P and ALLO, also indicate that females show greater treatment effectiveness during several phases of the addiction process. The neurobiological basis of sex differences in drug abuse appears to be genetic and involves the influence of ovarian hormones and their metabolites, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, dopamine (DA), and gamma-hydroxy-butyric acid (GABA). Overall, sex and hormonal status along with other biological risk factors account for a continuum of addiction-prone and -resistant animal models that are valuable for studying drug abuse prevention and treatment strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Gonadal Hormones / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Ovary / metabolism
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism*


  • Gonadal Hormones