Research Finds Men and Women with Alcoholism May Process Emotions Differently

Abstract thoughtful man and woman

Not long ago, many research studies were comprised of participants who were largely of one gender or one race or ethnicity, which limited a study’s applicability. Something that was found to be true for a group of very similar people could not necessarily be applied to another.

In the early years of alcoholism research, most studies were conducted using samples that involved men only. It has been within only the last 15 years that more women have been included in research studies.

Seeing as men and women are biologically different, findings gathered using strictly male samples may not be applicable to women. This is why a team of researchers led by Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD, decided to take a closer look at the different ways that men and women with alcohol use disorder (AUD) respond to emotional cues.

The results of the study, which included researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Martinos Center for Biological Imaging, Boston University and the Boston VA Medical Center, were detailed in a new eLife report by Kayle Sawyer, PhD, and colleagues.

The link between emotions and alcohol consumption

There are many reasons why individuals consume alcohol, but studies have shown that those who struggle to manage their emotions may drink more than others. Some may drink as a way to self-soothe, while others may drink to amplify their emotional experiences.

There have been studies that have explored the connection between AUD and the brain’s role in emotional perception, but few have differentiated between men and women. Since research has found that men and women process emotions differently regardless of AUD, Sawyer and the research team decided to take their study one step further to examine gender differences in emotional processing of those with AUD.

Triggering an emotional response

The study involved men and women in recovery from AUD, as well as nonalcoholic control groups of men and women. Researchers presented participants with a collection of photos categorized as either aversive, erotic, gruesome, happy and neutral to trigger a variety of emotional responses.

Participants were asked to rate how the photos made them feel (good, bad, or neutral).

To gain a deeper understanding of their emotions and what brain regions were being activated while looking at the images, researchers used fMRI scans to measure changes in blood flow within the brain.

Using neuroimaging to highlight differences in brain activation

The team compared the brain activation of AUD participants to nonalcoholic participants and also made comparisons between men and women in both categories. Where previous studies found AUD to limit emotional reactivity in both men and women, Sawyer’s study found something a little more interesting.

They found a significant difference in emotional processing between men and women, but that AUD did not always create a desensitized response.

The fMRI scans revealed that AUD men had significantly lower brain activation than nonalcoholic men and AUD women. Scans showed that their brains were less responsive to each of the types of emotional stimuli, which researchers believe may reflect diminished sensitivity to positive and negative emotions.

AUD women, on the other hand, had higher brain activation than nonalcoholic women when presented with the happy stimuli.

“Based on these findings, we believe that the emotional experiences and underlying brain mechanisms of AUD may differ for the two genders.”

Marlene Oscar-Berman, PhD

Further research on sex differences in AUD could help in developing treatments based on a better understanding of these differences in emotional processing.

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