Does Heavy Alcohol Use Affect Men Differently Than Women?

By Kelly Burch 09/07/17

For a new study, researchers examined the brain functions of young men and women who are long-time heavy drinkers.

a man and a woman drinking a beer.

A new study shows that heavy drinking affects the brains of both men and women but does so in different ways—with men being more susceptible to changes from alcohol. 

The Finnish study looked at 27 people (11 men, 16 women) who were heavy drinkers throughout their teen years. They were all between the ages of 23 and 28, and had been drinking for 10 years. The people involved in the study did not meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder.

Researchers found differences in brain function in the heavy drinkers as compared with a control group, especially when it came to the neurotransmitter GABA. Men had more changes than women. 

“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,” study author Dr. Outi Kaarre said in a press release. “This means that male brain electrical functioning is changed more than female brains by long-term alcohol use.”

Everyone has two types of GABA receptors, A and B. The study found that both types of receptors are affected in men who drank heavily, but only GABA-A was affected in women. "Generally, our work showed that alcohol causes more pronounced changes in both electrical and chemical neurotransmission in men than women,” Kaarre said. 

Kaarre added that animal studies have indicated that GABA-A seems to affect drinking patterns, while GABA-B affects desire and cravings for alcohol. The results may help explain why men and women might react to alcohol differently. “It has been suggested that women and men may respond differently to alcohol. Our work offers a possible mechanism to these differences,” Kaarre said. 

Further research is needed to find out how these differences may affect behavior. “We’re still trying to figure out what this means, but GABA is a pretty fundamental neurotransmitter in the inhibition of many brain and central nervous systems functions,” Kaarre said. “It’s involved in many neurological systems, and is important in anxiety and depression. Generally it seems to calm down brain activity.”

One possible implication is that medication-assisted treatment for alcohol use disorder could be administered differently for males and females, said Wim van den Brink, professor of Psychiatry and Addiction at the University of Amsterdam. 

“The finding of a different EEG-pattern in male and female early heavy drinkers may indeed have important consequences for the treatment of male and female patients with an alcohol use disorder,” he said. “One of the most recent new medications for the treatment of alcohol dependence is the GABA-B agonist Baclofen, which has shown mixed results which may be explained by this work.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.