The Two Types of Alcoholic Brains: Anxiety-Prone and Impulsive

By May Wilkerson 05/04/16

A new study examines the changes in the brain that differentiate alcoholics and makes some more prone to alcoholism after long-term use.

The Two Types of Alcoholic Brains: Anxiety-Prone and Impulsive
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Anxiety and impulse control issues are two common phenomena among alcoholics, and the differences could lie in changes in brain tissues. Overall, the brain tissue of alcoholics experience different changes than non-alcoholic brains, according to a new study from the University of Eastern Finland. But there are two types of alcoholic brains: anxiety-prone (Type I) and impulsive (Type II), and the researchers discovered that some brain changes are exclusive to one type or the other.

Type I alcoholics are more likely to become dependent on alcohol later in life and are more prone to anxiety, whereas Type II alcoholics tend to get hooked at a younger age, and exhibit greater impulsivity and antisocial behavior, the study found.

Of course, the brain is a complex organ and not every alcoholic fits neatly in one of these categories, the researchers noted. “From the viewpoint of the study setting, this division was made in order to highlight the wide spectrum of people suffering from alcohol dependence,” said lead researcher Olli Kärkkäinen. “The reality, of course, is far more diverse, and not every alcoholic fits into one of these categories.”

The researchers did find various similarities in the brains of all alcoholics, including increased levels of dehydroepiandrosterone, a steroid hormone that affects the central nervous system. This could help explain why many alcoholics become tolerant to the effects of alcohol after chronic, long-term use. Another similarity was that all alcoholics showed decreased levels of serotonin transporters in brain regions related to the recognition of feelings and social cognitive processes, which could explain why many alcoholics experience social anxiety.

The researchers hope the findings can be used to aid in the development of new treatments for alcoholism that take into account specific differences between Type I and Type II brains. “These findings enhance our understanding of changes in the brain that make people prone to alcoholism and that are caused by long-term use,” said Kärkkäinen. “Such information is useful for developing new drug therapies for alcoholism, and for targeting existing treatments at patients who will benefit the most.”

In Western countries, an estimated 10-15% of the population qualify as alcohol-dependent. And across the world, alcohol is believed to cause about as much damage as the use of all illegal substances combined. 

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.