UCSB psychology graduate student Kerri Kerstetter recently found that female rats prefer a cocaine high to a food coma.

For the experiment, researchers presented two distinct levers to hungry rodents: one would release the drug and the other would release food rations. While the female rats in the study chose cocaine over food, Kerstetter and colleagues discovered that their male counterparts favored sustenance.

The levers were presented at the exact same time during another phase of the experiment to ensure that results weren’t indicative of the order that the rodents were introduced to the separate levers.

Kerstetter told Science News her findings hold significant implications for gender and addiction studies. According to her, research on the difference between male and female drug users may promote better drug abuse treatment facilities and programs.

“Females and males seem to be very different when it comes to the incentive value of cocaine,” Kerstetter said.

Even though males eventually chose cocaine 50 percent of the time once their dose was increased, the females trumped the males, seeking cocaine 75 to 80 percent of the time.

While Kerstetter said she and her colleagues have not pinpointed the reason for the difference of preference between genders, they suspect sex hormones regulate cocaine preference. Kerstetter said ovaries may generate female hormones that trigger the preference in the females’ brains. This inference was based on findings that female rodents made selections more similar to the males after their ovaries were removed.

The findings have sparked interest throughout the scientific community and student body.

Andrew Thomas, a second-year computer science major, said he is curious whether a study with human subjects would yield the same results.

“I found the difference in addiction between males and females surprising,” Thomas said. “I wonder how much of [this study] transfers over to human addiction.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, gender differences exist among human addicts. While men and women are equally susceptible to cocaine, hallucinogen, tobacco and inhalant addictions, some studies have shown women more likely to become dependent on sedatives and narcotics that aid sleeplessness and anxiety than men. Previous studies also revealed that females are generally more sensitive to the cardiovascular effects of cocaine than males.

However, the center also found that experiments on long-term cocaine effects with human subjects showed that men and women faced similar impairments with regard to concentration, memory and academic achievement. Women were also less likely to display abnormal blood flow to the brain than men.