A consistent finding in drug abuse research is that males and females show differences in their response to drugs of abuse. In women, increased plasma estradiol is associated with increased vulnerability to the psychostimulant and reinforcing effects of drugs of abuse. Our laboratory has focused on the role of estradiol in modulating the response to cocaine. We have seen that ovariectomy increases the locomotor response to a single cocaine injection, whereas estradiol exacerbates the locomotor response to repeated cocaine administration. Cocaine-induced sensitization of brain activity, as measured by fMRI, is also dependent on plasma estradiol. Moreover, we observed that although all ovariectomized rats show conditioned place preference to cocaine, it is more robust in ovariectomized rats with estradiol. Opioid receptors are enriched in brain regions associated with pleasure and reward. We find that in females, the effectiveness of kappa opioid agonists in decreasing the locomotor response to repeated cocaine varies with plasma estradiol. We also find that estradiol regulates the density of mu opioid receptors in brains areas associated with reward. These data hint that in females, estradiol modulates the behavioral effects of cocaine by regulating mu and kappa opioid signaling in mesocorticolimbic brain structures. Identifying the mechanisms that mediate differences in vulnerability to drugs of abuse may lead to effective therapeutic strategies for the treatment and prevention of addiction and relapse. We encourage health practitioners treating persons addicted to drugs to consider gender differences in response to particular pharmacotherapies, as well the sex steroid milieu of the patient.
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