Researchers examine brain activity of alcohol-dependent women — find a lot going on

Chaos is no stranger to people dependent on alcohol, making their lives and often the lives of loved ones more complicated. IU researcher Lindsay Arcurio used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to look more closely at the brain activity of women dependent on alcohol and found a lot going on inside, as well.

glasses of red wine“We see that the network dynamics of alcohol-dependent women may be really different from that of healthy controls in a drinking-related task,” said Arcurio, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, in a news release. “We have evidence to suggest alcohol-dependent women have trouble switching between networks of the brain.”

Women in the study who were not dependent on alcohol showed a surprisingly different pattern of brain activity, deactivating and activating specific areas of the brain in response to the experiment. Not so with the alcoholic women.

“It gets really interesting,” Arcurio said, “comparing this pattern of activation to those in alcohol-dependent women, who behaviorally say they’re more likely to take the high-risk drink compared to the controls. They don’t deactivate anything. In contrast to the controls, alcohol-dependent women activate all three regions in question. They activate regions associated with reward (which release dopamine). They also activate frontal control regions involved in cognitive control and regions associated with the default mode network, involved in resting-state behavior. They are activating everything.”

Read the full release

Lindsay Arcurio

Lindsay Arcurio

The research is part of a larger new effort to understand the differences between men and women with respect to alcohol. Arcurio said most of the research on alcohol dependence has been conducted with men or groups of men and women. Yet several factors make looking at women “really important.”

One such factor is that the physiological effects of drinking alcohol, which include liver damage, heart disease and breast cancer, set in much earlier in women than in men. For this reason, the suggested limit on the number of drinks per week that women can safely consume is eight, whereas for men, it is 14.

Secondly, binge-drinking in women is on the rise. One in five adolescent girls is binge-drinking three times a month. In women between the ages of 18 and 54, that number is one in eight.

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