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Why Men Are at Greater Risk for Alcoholism

Posted in Research

Alcohol use disorder is very difficult to overcome. Those who seek treatment may relapse after recovery, cycling back into programs multiple times before they are successful. Men are twice as likely as women to develop alcoholism, though a biological reason for this difference between genders had not been found until now.

A new study has discovered an underlying biological factor that may help researchers explain the difference between men and women when it comes to risk for alcoholism. The study appears in Biological Psychiatry and indicates that dopamine may hold the answers for why men are more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol.

A research team combining talent from Columbia and Yale examined male and female college students in a social drinking atmosphere in a laboratory test of alcohol consumption.

After the students had consumed alcohol or a non-alcoholic drink, the participants were examined using a specialized positron emission tomography (PET) scan. The PET scan is an imaging technique that measures the dopamine release caused by the consumption of alcohol.

While dopamine plays many roles in the brain, one of its main functions is to produce pleasurable effects associated with rewarding experiences. It is often released during sexual experiences or the use of drugs or alcohol.

Though the college students were consistent in their alcohol consumption across genders, the men showed a more significant dopamine release than the females did. The difference was found in the ventral striatum, which is the area of the brain that experiences pleasure and is involved with reinforcement and addiction formation.

Dr. Anissa Abi-Dargham is the senior author on the study. Abi-Dargham explained that the study also revealed that the decline in alcohol-related dopamine release with repeated heavy drinking episodes may explain the development of tolerance. It may also indicate the source for the transition into habit.

The study’s findings show that the role of alcohol in stimulating dopamine release may be very critical in determining whether a person develops a dependence on alcohol. The discovery of a biological factor for differences between the genders in reactions to alcohol may prove to be an important step to understanding the risks for alcoholism and how they are processed by the brain.

Though alcoholism is attributable to a complex combination of biological and environmental factors, the research provided by this study offers an important discovery and key to understanding the biological factors that influence gender differences in alcoholism.