Alcoholism Damages Ability to Read Emotional Cues

Alcoholism Damages Ability to Read Emotional Cues

Besides affecting lives, careers, health, and memory, alcohol also damages relationships. Alcoholics have long been known to have difficulty reading emotional cues, which can range from taking offense when none was intended to failing to pick up on a loved one’s feelings of anger or joy, but it was never known how or why—until now.

The Los Angeles Times’ Melissa Healy reports that a recent study helps explain this phenomenon by finding that alcohol damages parts of the brain that help judge others’ facial expressions, even in former alcoholics who have long abstained from drinking. The parts of our brains that are typically activated when we observe, record, and react to other people’s facial expressions—the limbic system, or the amygdala and the hippocampus—do not respond with the same intensity in alcoholics.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University examined the brains of 15 abstinent alcoholics and 15 non-alcoholics while the subjects looked at faces expressing positive, negative, and neutral emotions and answered an unrelated question such as, “How intelligent do you think this person is?” As they answered, researchers looked at their brains using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which tracks brain activity from second to second.

When looking at faces that projected emotions, the amygdala and hippocampal regions of the non-alcoholics showed evidence of strong activity. When those same subjects looked at neutral facial expressions, the non-alcoholics’ limbic systems were relatively quiet.

But the alcoholics’ limbic systems responded no differently to facial expressions that conveyed strong emotion than to those that were neutral. The individuals in both groups were matched in terms of age, IQ, education, and socioeconomic status, but their brains reacted completely differently when confronted with facial expressions conveying emotion.

Their findings also show that a lengthy period of abstinence from alcohol can bring some cognitive recovery as the brain “rewires” itself.

Ksenija Marinkovic, one of the study ‘s authors, warned that the study leaves one important questions unanswered: Whether the blunted emotional sensitivity evident in the alcoholics came first–and then gave way to alcoholism–or whether alcoholism brought about changes in the brain that blunted peoples’ sensitivity to others’ emotions.

The idea that alcohol damages the brain makes sense, but some researchers suggest that a child’s cognitive deficits—especially in emotional intelligence—may set off events that can lead to alcoholism later.

Past research has shown that the children of alcoholics often exhibit the same deficits in reading emotions, and that children of alcoholics are at far greater risk of becoming alcoholics themselves. That would suggest that emotional difficulties and miscommunications can lead to feelings of failure and discouragement, which can lead to alcohol use and eventual dependence.

"It’s a chicken-or-egg problem. We just don’t know which comes first," said Marinkovic

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