This shows a man and woman drinking.
In women, those circuits were clearly blunted, but in men they were hyperactive. Credit: Neuroscience News

Sex-Specific Brain Responses to Alcohol Craving

Summary: A new study utilizes fMRI scans to examine how men and women with alcohol use disorder respond differently to stress and alcohol-related cues. The study found that while alcohol cues triggered stronger cravings in men, stress cues had a similar impact on women, suggesting the need for sex-specific treatment strategies.

Brain function analysis showed distinct patterns between the sexes in areas linked to emotion, reward, and impulse control. These findings could inform targeted therapeutic approaches, potentially improving treatment outcomes for alcohol use disorder.

Key Facts:

  1. Gender Differences in Brain Response: Men and women show different brain responses to alcohol-related and stress cues, with women experiencing more uniform craving responses to both types of cues.
  2. Future Drinking Predictors: Brain regions associated with anxiety in women and stress arousal in men were predictors of future heavy drinking, highlighting potential targets for intervention.
  3. Implications for Treatment: The study supports the development of gender-specific treatments for alcohol use disorder, which could address the unique neural and psychological mechanisms at play in each sex.

Source: Yale

The brain circuits that underlie alcohol craving and heavy drinking share some similarities between men and women, but also some key differences, a new Yale study reveals.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Yale researchers have observed that after viewing stress- or alcohol-related images (as opposed to “neutral” images), the brains of men and women with alcohol use disorder responded differently.

Those differences, which were also related to alcohol craving intensity and future alcohol use, may signal the need for sex-specific therapeutic approaches to alcohol use disorder.

The findings were published May 6 in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Previous research has shown that individuals with alcohol use disorder who experience strong cravings for alcohol—the overpowering desire to consume alcohol—are more likely to relapse into heavy drinking. Researchers have also shown that craving can be triggered by stressful life events and alcohol-related cues, such as seeing other people drinking alcohol.

What has been less clear is whether these patterns are the same in men and women. But there had been growing evidence to suggest they might not be, says Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study.

“In the last two decades, there has been a very steep increase in binge drinking among women in the United States, much more so than in men,” said Sinha.

“That has led to a lot more concern for the comorbidities associated with alcohol use disorder, such as liver disease, cardiovascular issues, and cancer risk. So we set out to see if stress- and cue-related craving is different in men and women.”

For the study, Sinha and her colleagues recruited 77 treatment-seeking adults (46 men and 31 women) with alcohol use disorder. While undergoing fMRI scanning, the participants viewed images that depicted either stressful scenes, such as someone with a gunshot wound; alcohol-related images, like people at a bar; or “neutral” images, such as waterfalls or mountains. The participants rated their level of stress and alcohol craving after each image.

“We found that women reported greater levels of stress after viewing the stress cues than did men,” said Sinha, “Further, while alcohol cues led to stronger craving in men than the stress cues did, in women, stress and alcohol cues led to the same amount of craving in women.”

When the researchers looked at brain function while the participants viewed the images, they found that brain circuits—particularly those found to be connected to emotion, reward, regulation of stress and emotion, and impulse control—responded differently in men and women.

“In women, those circuits were clearly blunted, but in men they were hyperactive,” said Sinha. “So the disruption is there in both but in different ways.”

Most of the participants (72) went on to complete an eight-week behavioral alcohol use treatment program and reported daily if and how much alcohol they consumed. While there were no differences between men and women in how often they engaged in heavy drinking, the brain regions correlated with future heavy drinking were different across sexes.

“In women, disruptions in brain regions associated with anxiety were related to future heavy drinking,” said Sinha. “But in men it was disruptions in areas linked to high stress arousal.”

These sex differences in craving and its underlying neural correlates suggest men and women may benefit from targeted therapeutic approaches, said the researchers. Those could include both pharmacological and behavioral treatments.

In general, more consideration of the experiential, biological, and demographic variability across individuals will lead to better treatments for alcohol use disorder and many other illnesses, said Sinha.

“We want these types of studies in order to get clues on processes that drive heavy drinking and what type of interventions might work,” she said. “It can be a very critical component of novel treatment development and better outcomes.”

About this alcohol use disorder and neuroscience research news

Author: Mallory Locklear
Source: Yale
Contact: Mallory Locklear – Yale
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Neural Correlates of Stress and Alcohol Cue-Induced Alcohol Craving and of Future Heavy Drinking: Evidence of Sex Differences” by Milena Radoman et al. American Journal of Psychiatry


Neural Correlates of Stress and Alcohol Cue-Induced Alcohol Craving and of Future Heavy Drinking: Evidence of Sex Differences


Stress and alcohol cue reactivity are associated with poor treatment outcomes in alcohol use disorder (AUD), but sex-specific neural correlates of stress and alcohol cue–induced craving compared with neutral cue–induced craving and of heavy drinking outcomes in AUD have not been examined. Thus, this study prospectively examined these associations and assessed sex differences.


Treatment-seeking adults with AUD (N=77; 46 men and 31 women) completed a functional MRI task involving stress, alcohol, and neutral cue exposure with repeated assessments of alcohol craving. Most of these participants (N=72; 43 men and 29 women) then participated in an 8-week standardized behavioral AUD treatment program, during which the percentage of heavy drinking days was assessed.


Significant increases in both stress and alcohol cue–induced craving relative to neutral cue–induced craving were observed, with a greater alcohol-neutral contrast in craving relative to the stress-neutral contrast among men and equivalent stress-neutral and alcohol-neutral contrasts in craving among women.

Whole-brain voxel-based regression analyses showed craving-associated hyperactivation in the neutral condition, but hypoactive prefrontal (ventromedial and lateral prefrontal, supplementary motor, and anterior cingulate regions) and striatal responses during exposure to stressful images (stress-neutral contrast) and alcohol cues (alcohol-neutral contrast), with significant sex differences.

Additionally, a higher percentage of heavy drinking days was associated with hypoactivation of the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex and the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis in the stress-neutral contrast among women, hyperactivation of the hypothalamus in the stress-neutral contrast among men, and hyperactivation of the hippocampus in the alcohol-neutral contrast among men.


Sex differences in stress- and alcohol cue-induced responses in the cortico-striatal-limbic network related to subjective alcohol craving and to heavy drinking indicated that distinct brain circuits underlie alcohol use outcomes in women and men. These findings underscore the need for sex-specific therapeutics to address this neural dysfunction effectively.

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