Alcoholism is ‘more damaging to male brains’

Men are more susceptible to the negative long-term effects of alcohol, according to new study by the University of Eastern Finland.

The researchers worked with 11 young men and 16 young women (between the ages of 23 and 28) who had been drinking heavily for at least ten years. They compared them with 12 young men and 13 young women who drank little or no alcohol.

They examined the responses of the brain to being stimulated by magnetic pulses (known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) which activate brain neurons. Brain activity was then measured using an electroencephalogram.

Previously, the researchers had found that heavy alcohol users showed a greater electrical response in the cortex of the brain than non-alcohol users, which indicates that there had been long-term changes to how the brain responds.

They also found that young men and young women responded differently, with males showing a greater increase in electrical activity in the brain in response to a TMS pulse.

Dr. Outi Kaarre, the study’s lead author, said: ‘We found more changes in brain electrical activity in male subjects, than in females, which was a surprise, as we expected it would be the other way around. This means that male brain electrical functioning is changed more than female brains by long-term alcohol use.’

The EEGs also allowed the researchers to show that male brains have greater electrical activity associated with the GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) neurotransmission than female brains.

‘Generally, our work showed that alcohol causes more pronounced changes in both electrical and chemical neurotransmission in men than women. There are two types of GABA receptors, A and B. Long-term alcohol use affects neurotransmission through both types in males, but only one type, GABA-A, is affected in females.’

The finding of a different EEG-pattern in male and female early heavy drinkers may indeed have important consequences for the treatment of alcoholism. One of the most recent new medications for the treatment of dependence is the GABA-B agonist Baclofen, which has shown mixed results which may be explained by this research.