Significant yet striking differences in alcohol-dependent women

Significant yet striking differences in alcohol-dependent women

A study by Indiana University found significant yet surprising differences in the brain functions and activity of alcohol-dependent women. It provided valuable insight into the risky decisions made by women regarding when and what to drink.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the differences between patterns of brain network activation in two groups of women: those addicted to alcohol and those who were not. The findings suggested that the anterior insular region of the brain, controlling consciousness, emotions and cravings, appeared to be implicated in the process, indicating a possibly new target of treatment for alcohol-dependent women.

Lindsay Arcurio, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at University of Indiana said, “We have evidence to suggest alcohol-dependent women have trouble switching between networks of the brain.”

There are many factors that warrant the need to research the physiological effects of drinking alcohol such as liver damage, heart disease or certain cancers, which surface much sooner in women than in men. Hence, the suggested weekly limit of drinks that women can safely consume is eight, whereas for men, the limit is 14.

Unfortunately, binge-drinking in women is a rising trend as one in five adolescent girls engage in binge-drinking three times a month. For women aged 18 to 54, one in eight engage in binge-drinking.

Participants were placed in the fMRI brain scanner and asked to consider low-risk and high-risk situations specifically related to alcohol.

  • For the low-risk situation, participants were asked to imagine themselves at a bar where someone bought them a drink with two shots of alcohol, and an assured safe ride home.
  • For the high-risk scenario, they were told to imagine themselves at a bar where someone bought them a drink with six shots of alcohol, but no safe ride home.

Such extreme contrasts between the two situations employed “a sledgehammer approach” to accurately identify the differences between a definitive high-risk and low-risk situation.

The findings reflected an equally drastic contrast regarding differences between the brain network activation in alcohol-dependent women versus the controls.

“It gets really interesting,” Arcurio said, “comparing this pattern of activation to those in alcohol-dependent women, who behaviorally say they’re more likely to take the high-risk drink compared to the controls. They don’t deactivate anything. In contrast to the controls, alcohol-dependent women activate all three regions in question. They activate regions associated with reward (which release dopamine). They also activate frontal control regions involved in cognitive control and regions associated with the default mode network, involved in resting-state behavior. They are activating everything.”

The investigators concluded that alcohol-dependent women experienced trouble alternating between networks. The inability to activate one region and deactivate another in response to an alcohol-related situation implied their helplessness to employ one strategy over another.

Furthermore, Arcurio stated, “A lot of evidence suggests that switching between networks is influenced by the anterior insular and anterior cingulate regions of the brain, and we did find major differences in the insula between the alcohol-dependent women and controls. We’re thinking the issue is pinpointed to that region.”

The research is part of a larger effort to understand the differences between men and women with respect to alcohol abuse. Most research on alcohol dependence has been focused upon men or groups of men and women. Yet several factors make studying just women’s alcohol addiction vital.

The California Alcohol Abuse Helpline strives to bring help to those struggling with an alcohol problem. If you or a loved one is currently battling an addiction, call us right away at 855-980-1715.

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