Researchers considering the differences in the way alcoholism impacts on men and women have released a preliminary paper that has caught the eye of many working in the field of rehabilitation. Presented at a recent conference held at the highly respected European College of Neuro-psychopharmacology, findings suggest that heavy alcohol use impacts on the brain structure of males and females differently.
The study sample focused on a demographic of males and females in their 20s. The indication that brain structure is altered in drinkers of such a young age raises questions in regard to the speed at which this can happen. The findings also give potential inroads to new approaches to understanding and addressing cravings, dependency issues and abstaining from alcohol use.
Critics will cite the small sample size of this study – only 27 individuals were used in the research. This raises questions in regard to the reliability of the data retrieved. However, the early findings could be groundbreaking, so one hopes the study will be repeated with a much larger group of participants.
The basic idea of the research was to measure activity within participants’ brains – both chemical and electrical – to compare differences between the male and female brain of heavy drinkers. A control group of individuals with a ten-year history of light alcohol consumption or abstinence were used to establish a base-line of what could be considered ‘normal’. Key findings saw disparities in the level of activity in GABA receptors. GABA is a neurotransmitter which plays a role in stabilising brain activity and reducing levels of anxiety and depression.
So how does this translate in the real world? Basically, the study suggests that men are more adversely affected than women in terms of neurotransmission anomalies. Of the two different types of GABA receptors, GABA-A and GABA-B, men saw changes in both whilst women only showed signs of changes to GABA-A receptors. The results appear to have surprised the researchers, who were expecting to see the opposite.
It is suggested that GABA-A receptors have an impact on patterns of alcohol consumption, whilst GABA-B receptors affect cravings for alcohol. These findings are particularly relevant to the future of treating alcohol use and addiction with medication, as well as understanding how cravings are managed between sexes.
Observations suggest that men are twice as likely as women to develop alcohol problems or engage in heavy drinking. Whilst this has often been attributed to social factors and learned behaviour representative of male stereotypes, it could be that there is more to it than meets the eye. Now, this interesting piece of research has caught the attention of the academic world, it could form the basis of some extremely beneficial changes in the approach we take to battle addiction.