Gender impacts brain activity in alcohol use disorder

Summary: Men with alcohol use disorder have diminished brain activity in areas associated with emotional processing, memory and social processing, compared to women with AUD. The findings may lead to gender-specific treatments to help relieve addition to alcohol.

Source: Boston University School of Medicine

Compared to women, men with alcohol use disorder have more diminished brain activity in areas responsible for emotional processing (limbic regions including the amygdala and hippocampus), as well as memory and social processing (cortical regions including the superior frontal and supramarginal regions) among other functions.

In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health Alcoholism found 15.1 million adults have Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Although it is among the leading maladies worldwide, the abnormalities in emotional processing that underlie the problem are not well understood. To date, most published works describing brain abnormalities associated with AUD do not address gender differences but have relied primarily upon research with alcoholic men or combined gender groups.

Previous research among alcoholics has found particular regions of the brain have muted responses to highly charged visual imagery. This study identified how the abnormalities associated with alcoholism in these brain regions differed for men and women.

This shows a young man and woman drinking
This study identified how the abnormalities associated with alcoholism in these brain regions differed for men and women. The image is in the public domain.

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), in conjunction with the VA Boston Healthcare System and Massachusetts General Hospital, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the difference in brain activity between highly charged visual images and neutral images. “Our findings indicate that the experiences and mechanisms of AUD and addiction differ for men and women,” explained corresponding author Kayle S. Sawyer, PhD, from the department of anatomy and neurobiology at BUSM.

According to the researchers, both the general public and medical professionals typically treat AUD as a homogenous disease, without distinguishing between men and women.

“This study provides insights into emotional processing in alcoholism by examining the influence of gender on brain activation.”

Although additional research is needed, the authors believe these findings may one day lead to prevention and treatment strategies specifically tailored by gender.

Funding: This research was supported by US Department of Veterans Affairs Clinical Science Research and Development (I01CX000326); National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health US Department of Health and Human Services (R01AA07112, R01AA016624, K05AA00219, and K01AA13402); Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging Shared Instrumentation Grants (1S10RR023401, 1S10RR019307, and 1S10RR023043); Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation; Mental Illness and Neuroscience Discovery (MIND) Institute; NIH National Center for Research (P41RR14075); and Boston University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (BU CTSI; 1UL1TR001430).

About this neuroscience research article

Boston University School of Medicine
Media Contacts:
Gina DiGravio – Boston University School of Medicine
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Alcoholism gender differences in brain responsivity to emotional stimuli”. Kayle S Sawyer Is a corresponding author , Nasim Maleki, Trinity Urban, Ksenija Marinkovic, Steven Karson, Susan M Ruiz, Gordon J Harris, Marlene Oscar-Berman.
eLife. doi:10.7554/eLife.41723


Alcoholism gender differences in brain responsivity to emotional stimuli

Men and women may use alcohol to regulate emotions differently, with corresponding differences in neural responses. We explored how the viewing of different types of emotionally salient stimuli impacted brain activity observed through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) from 42 long-term abstinent alcoholic (25 women) and 46 nonalcoholic (24 women) participants. Analyses revealed blunted brain responsivity in alcoholic compared to nonalcoholic groups, as well as gender differences in those activation patterns. Brain activation in alcoholic men (ALCM) was significantly lower than in nonalcoholic men (NCM) in regions including rostral middle and superior frontal cortex, precentral gyrus, and inferior parietal cortex, whereas activation was higher in alcoholic women (ALCW) than in nonalcoholic women (NCW) in superior frontal and supramarginal cortical regions. The reduced brain reactivity of ALCM, and increases for ALCW, highlighted divergent brain regions and gender effects, suggesting possible differences in the underlying basis for development of alcohol use disorders.

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