Study Finds Differences in Brain According to Drinking Habits

Study Finds Differences in Brain According to Drinking Habits

College life is often associated with partying and heavy drinking. Those who participate in this aspect of college, are often students who are primarily social drinkers, drinking heavily on the weekend with friends.

A study conducted by researchers at Yale University provides evidence that there may be differences at the neural level that show how those who drink heavily have less activation in certain areas of the brain. The study focused on risk-taking among young social drinkers. It found that two areas of the brain, the caudate nucleus and the frontal cortex, were less activated in those who drink more alcohol.

The results of the study appear in the May issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Corresponding author of the study is Chian-shan R. Li, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale. Li explains that problem drinking occurs with young men about three times more than among young women and most problem drinking occurs with young adults.

Li also explained that risk taking is one of many cognitive and psychological factors involved in alcohol-related behaviors. In this particular study, Li and colleagues tried to identify the pattern of brain activations that occur during risk-taking behaviors and examine whether the patterns were different among those who drink heavily or more frequently.

The research team compared two groups of college-aged social drinkers. The first group of 20 college students, comprised of 11 women and nine men, all met criteria for heavy alcohol consumption. The second group included 21 students, of which 15 were women and six were men, met criteria for low-to-moderate alcohol use.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain function during a stop signal task. The activity of the brain was recorded as risk taking, which involved speeding, and risk aversion, or slowing. Through this activity, the researches were able to determine the neural reaction to risk taking opportunities.

Li said that the results support earlier research conducted showing differences in the brain among those who drink heavily. The research team discovered that the caudate nucleus and the frontal cortex are less activated during risk-taking behaviors in individuals who drink heavily, when compared with those who drink low-to-moderate amounts of alcohol.

The caudate nucleus and the frontal cortex are two areas of the brain that typically show a greater level of activity when presented with risk-taking opportunities. The results of the study show that the activity is lessened in these areas when a person is a heavy drinking, indicating that for these people, risk-taking may be less significant.

The research showed that the association was stronger for females than for males, and was closely related to women’s frequency of drinking. This finding shows that for women, the association may be more directly connected to how often they drink when compared to the association in men.

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