A recently published study looked at how brain responsivity to emotional faces differs in men and women with and without a history of alcohol use disorder (AUD).
“We investigated brain activity in response to facial expressions,” study author Kayle S. Sawyer told us, “and how abnormalities in brain activity differed for men and women with a history of alcohol use disorder.”
The team’s previous research had suggested that men and women are differently impacted by alcoholism, or may have different risk factors that make them susceptible to alcohol use disorders.
“Specifically, we had previously examined how the sizes of reward structures were related to gender and alcohol history,” Sawyer explained to us, “and found that men with AUD had smaller reward structures.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four per cent of women overall and eight per cent of women aged 18 to 25 years had an AUD in 2019. In one month’s time, almost half of adult women in the United States have consumed alcohol. Binge drinking occurs in about 18 per cent of childbearing women aged 18 to 44 and about four times every 30 days. The average a woman will drink is five drinks during a binge. More female high school students consumed alcohol (over 30 per cent) than males (26 per cent) in 2019. Also, in high school, females were more likely to binge drink (15 per cent) than their male counterparts (13 per cent).
Researchers had previously identified how men with a history of AUD had dampened brain responses to emotional facial expressions, so they decided to investigate how the difference in responses was manifested for women. Emotional processing is an important component of AUD, because it impacts how relationships form, motivation for drinking, and stress responses.
“We implemented a memory task that used images of happy, neutral, and sad or angry faces as stimuli to be remembered,” Sawyer told us. “Using functional MRI, we measured how brain activity differed between a baseline of looking at crosshairs vs emotional facial expressions. We then analyzed differences between the four groups: men and women with and without a history of AUD.”
Researchers identified two regions with gender differences in how the AUD group differed from the non AUD group. In the temporal lobe, the women with AUD had smaller responses to the faces as compared to the women without AUD. That difference was not as pronounced for men. In the frontal lobe, men with AUD had higher activation to the faces, a difference that was more pronounced than we found for women.
“Based on other work from our laboratory, we had hypothesized that brain activity may differ for men and women, but we did not know which parts of the brain would be identified,” Sawyer told us. “These findings give support for examining how individual factors, like gender, differentiate the impact of AUD. Further research can examine other aspects of brain activity with respect to gender and AUD, and how treatment and prevention strategies could be better tailored to individuals.”
Sawyer believes this work might interest clinicians, especially those involved with alcoholism or the mechanisms underlying the evaluation of emotional materials. The findings also reframe how researchers think about group analyses of neuroimaging data, and has consequences for how clinicians approach treatment.
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com