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Neuroscience of Alcohol Abuse

Heavier Drinkers Have Less Neural Response to Risk Taking

posted 04:15 AM EST, Tue February 21, 2012

Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine say that compared to moderate drinkers, heavier drinkers show less activation in areas of the brain which modulate risk management.

In an experiment that further erodes simplistic or moralistic explanations for the development of alcoholism, Yale University researchers say that heavier drinking young people have less neural activity in areas of the brain which control risk taking. This lessened risk aversion contributes to heavier drinking in young adulthood and increases a person’s risk to develop an alcohol abuse problem later in life.

The Experiment

There are many psychological and behavioral processes which combine to increase a person’s risk for alcohol abuse and dependence; two of which are a willingness to engage in risky behaviors and heavier drinking, particularly during adolescence and young adulthood.

To see whether these processes might intersect, the researchers recruited a sample of college aged students and divided this sample into 2 cohorts:

  1. Those who engaged in heavier drinking as measured by total number of drinks consumed per month
  2. Those who drank at low risk levels

All subjects were then observed through MRI scans as they performed a risk taking test (simulated speeding) and a risk aversion test (simulated slowing).

The Results

  • Compared to the low-risk drinkers, heavier drinkers showed less activation in the caudate nucleus and frontal cortex during the risk taking task. These areas of the brain are associated with the modulation of risk taking activities.
  • Although young men are more likely to engage in problem drinking, the differences in risk taking neural activity were seen most strongly among heavier drinking women and the women who had least neural response to risk were the likeliest to drink frequently.

The full research results will be published in the May 2012 edition of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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Story Highlights
  • Risk Taking: Non alcohol-dependent heavy drinkers have less neural response to risky situations than more moderate drinkers
  • The Causes of Alcohol Abuse and Dependence: The results of the experiment help to refute simplistic explanations for why some people develop problems with alcohol and some people do not
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