Jennifer Murray Works to Uncover How Sex Hormones Impact Cocaine Relapse

Posted on Tuesday, February 21st, 2023

A headshot of Jennifer Murray, a woman long brown hair and a blue top standing in a field.Cocaine is notoriously difficult to quit. Many Canadians each year struggle with cocaine use, working hard to become sober but relapsing due to the intense cravings and affect cocaine has on the brain. 

Although Cocaine Use Disorder (CUD) is on the rise in Canada, there is no effective pharmaceutical available to treat cocaine addiction. Individuals who struggle with CUD relapse despite the negative impact that using cocaine has on their lives and repeated attempts to quit.  

As some people with CUD go through interventions to reduce their reliance on the drug, clinicians have observed that relapse risk appears to be impacted by sex hormones in women. Women tend to be more vulnerable to relapse when their estrogen is high and less prone to relapse when progesterone is high. 

Intrigued by this observation, University of Guelph neuroscientist Dr. Jennifer Murray and her team hope to tease apart the details of exactly how estrogen and progesterone impact relapse of cocaine use.  

“We hope our research will lead to insights on how we can create sex-specific treatment options for those experiencing Cocaine Use Disorder. We want to find out exactly how these hormones interact with the brain so that we can ultimately help the millions of individuals who struggle with cocaine addiction,” said Murray. 

To complete this research, Murray has been awarded one year of funding through a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Sex and Gender in Health Research Project Grant. These grants encourage health research in Canada to effectively address biological and sociocultural differences between diverse groups of people in order to make health research more effective and applicable to everyone.  

In their lab, Murray and her team will apply estrogen and progesterone to male and female rats undergoing relapse tests to assess how these hormones interact with the brain. As research has already shown that estrogen and progesterone does impact sensitivity to cocaine cravings in humans, monkeys, and rats, Murray hopes to be able to uncover the exact mechanism of this interaction.  

In 2021, there were 2,455 overdose deaths in Canada alone. The findings of this study have the potential to inform the creation of a pharmaceutical intervention that could reduce the risk of relapse, improving the well-being of those with CUD and ultimately saving lives.  

Learn more about Dr. Jennifer Murray and her work. 

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