Heavy Alcohol Use Affects Young Men and Women’s Brains Differently

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It’s no secret that long-term, heavy alcohol consumption alters brain function. In a recent study from researchers from Finland, young men and women who consume alcohol heavily are suggested to have an increased risk for long-term harm.

The risks are thought to be different for men and women, and men are associated with a higher risk than women. Outi Kaarre, of the University of Eastern Finland and Kuopio University Hospital, said the study’s results weren’t what the researchers were expecting.

Credit: Kristoffer Trolle/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“We found more changes in brain electrical activity in male subjects, than in females, which was a surprise, as we expected it would be the other way around,” Kaarre said in a press release. “This means that male brain electrical functioning is changed more than female brains by long-term alcohol use.”

The researchers studied a group of 11 young men and 16 young women. All participants had a 10-year history of heavy alcohol use. The heavy alcohol use group was compared to a second group of 12 young men and 13 young women who consumed little to no alcohol. The study participants were all younger than 29 years old.

“Generally, our work showed that alcohol causes more pronounced changes in both electrical and chemical neurotransmission in men than women,” Kaarre said. “There are two types of GABA receptors, A and B. Long-term alcohol use affects neurotransmission through both types in males, but only one type, GABA-A, is affected in females.”

Related: Alcohol Before Bed Actually Messes With Your Sleep

The researchers analyzed the participants’ brain functions as they were being stimulated through a process known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which activates brain neurons. Brain activity was shown and quantified through electroencephalograms, or EEGs.

“We’re still trying to figure out what this means, but GABA is a pretty fundamental neurotransmitter in the inhibition of many brain and central nervous systems functions,” Kaarre said. “It’s involved in many neurological systems, and is important in anxiety and depression. Generally it seems to calm down brain activity.”

Differences Seen in Men and Women

The researchers were surprised to find that the young men and women responded to the heavy alcohol consumption in different ways. The young men exhibited a larger increase in electrical activity within the brain in response to the TMS.

“We know from animal studies that GABA-A receptor activity seems to affect drinking patterns, whereas GABA-B receptors seem to be involved in overall desire for alcohol,” Kaarre said. “It has been suggested that women and men may respond differently to alcohol. Our work offers a possible mechanism to these differences.”

In a previous study, the researchers saw heavy alcohol users to have a greater electrical response within the brain cortex than those who didn’t consume alcohol. The results suggested that there were long-term changes to the brain’s responses.

“We know that long-term alcohol use can be risky for young people. What this work means is that long-term alcohol use affects young men and women very differently, and we need to find out how these differences manifest themselves,” Kaarre said.

Kaarre suggested the need to look at tightening regulations when it comes to young people drinking, seeing as how none of the study participants had alcohol use disorders yet “significant changes in brain functioning were found. It may also mean that gender differences should be taken into account when planning pharmacological treatment for alcoholism.”

Related: Does Drinking Alcohol Lower Diabetes Risk?

Tori Linville

Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.