Neural mechanisms of reproduction in females as a predisposing factor for drug addiction

V. L. Hedges, Nancy A. Staffend, Robert L. Meisel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


There is an increasing awareness that adolescent females differ from males in their response to drugs of abuse and consequently in their vulnerability to addiction. One possible component of this vulnerability to drug addiction is the neurobiological impact that reproductive physiology and behaviors have on the mesolimbic dopamine system, a key neural pathway mediating drug addiction. In this review, we examine animal models that address the impact of ovarian cyclicity, sexual affiliation, sexual behavior, and maternal care on the long-term plasticity of the mesolimbic dopamine system. The thesis is that this plasticity in synaptic neurotransmission stemming from an individual's normal life history contributes to the pathological impact of drugs of abuse on the neurobiology of this system. Hormones released during reproductive cycles have only transient effects on these dopamine systems, whereas reproductive behaviors produce a persistent sensitization of dopamine release and post-synaptic neuronal responsiveness. Puberty itself may not represent a neurobiological risk factor for drug abuse, but attendant behavioral experiences may have a negative impact on females engaging in drug use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)217-231
Number of pages15
JournalFrontiers in Neuroendocrinology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We wish to thank Caroline Loftus for her excellent assistance with bibliographic and figure preparation. Support was provided by NIH Grants DA 13680 (RLM) and DA 026255 (VLH).


  • Dopamine
  • Estradiol
  • Maternal care
  • Neural plasticity
  • Neuronal signaling
  • Pair bonding
  • Progesterone
  • Sensitization
  • Sexual behavior


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