Imaging study provides glimpse of alcohol's effect on brain

Apr 29, 2008

New brain imaging research published this week shows that, after consuming alcohol, social drinkers had decreased sensitivity in brain regions involved in detecting threats, and increased activity in brain regions involved in reward. The study, in the April 30 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, is the first human brain imaging study of alcohol’s effect on the response of neuronal circuits to threatening stimuli.

“The key finding of this study is that after alcohol exposure, threat-detecting brain circuits can’t tell the difference between a threatening and non-threatening social stimulus,” said Marina Wolf, PhD, at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, who was unaffiliated with the study. “At one end of the spectrum, less anxiety might enable us to approach a new person at a party. But at the other end of the spectrum, we may fail to avoid an argument or a fight. By showing that alcohol exerts this effect in normal volunteers by acting on specific brain circuits, these study results make it harder for someone to believe that risky decision-making after alcohol ‘doesn’t apply to me’,” Wolf said.

Working with a dozen healthy participants who drink socially, research fellow Jodi Gilman, working with senior author Daniel Hommer, MD, at the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study activity in emotion-processing brain regions during alcohol exposure. Over two 45-minute periods, the study participants received either alcohol or a saline solution intravenously and were shown images of fearful facial expressions. (Previous studies have shown that expressions of fear signal a threatening situation and activate specific brain regions.)

The same group of participants received both alcohol and placebo, on two separate days.

Comparing brain activity, Gilman’s team found that when participants received the placebo infusion, fearful facial expressions spurred greater activity than neutral expressions in the amygdala, insula, and parahippocampal gyrus—brain regions involved in fear and avoidance—as well as in the brain’s visual system. However, these regions showed no increased brain activity when the participants were intoxicated.

In addition, alcohol activated striatal areas of the brain that are important components of the reward system. This confirms previous findings and supports the idea that activation of the brain’s reward system is a common feature of all drugs of abuse. Gilman’s team found that the level of striatal activation was associated with how intoxicated the participants reported feeling. These striatal responses help account for the stimulating and addictive properties of alcohol.

“I think the authors have set the standard for how studies on acute alcohol consumption should be conducted in the fMRI literature,” says Read Montague, PhD, at the Baylor College of Medicine, also unaffiliated with the study. “The findings are a stepping stone to more liberal use of imaging methodologies to advance our understanding of addiction.”

Since its development in 1993, fMRI has allowed the noninvasive mapping of function in various regions of the human brain. This technological advance is an important source of information for neuroscientists in a range of fields.

Source: Society for Neuroscience

Explore further: Growing a blood vessel in a week

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Fine line between serial seducer and sex addict: experts

May 17, 2011

French politician and International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, arrested in New York Saturday for attempted rape, has long trailed a reputation among France's cognoscenti as an ardent womanizer.

Taste perception of bitter foods depends on genetics

Apr 04, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- How we perceive the taste of bitter foods -- and whether we like or dislike them, at least initially -- depends on which versions of taste-receptor genes a person has, according to a researcher ...

Coffee drinking linked to reduced stroke risk in women

Mar 10, 2011

Drinking more than a cup of coffee a day was associated with a 22 percent to 25 percent lower risk of stroke, compared with those who drank less, in a study reported in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Recommended for you

Growing a blood vessel in a week

Oct 24, 2014

The technology for creating new tissues from stem cells has taken a giant leap forward. Three tablespoons of blood are all that is needed to grow a brand new blood vessel in just seven days. This is shown ...

Testing time for stem cells

Oct 24, 2014

DefiniGEN is one of the first commercial opportunities to arise from Cambridge's expertise in stem cell research. Here, we look at some of the fundamental research that enables it to supply liver and pancreatic ...

Team finds key signaling pathway in cause of preeclampsia

Oct 23, 2014

A team of researchers led by a Wayne State University School of Medicine associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology has published findings that provide novel insight into the cause of preeclampsia, the leading cause ...

Rapid test to diagnose severe sepsis

Oct 23, 2014

A new test, developed by University of British Columbia researchers, could help physicians predict within an hour if a patient will develop severe sepsis so they can begin treatment immediately.

User comments : 0