Lindsay Arcurio, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, has authored a study that examines alcohol dependent women’s brain activity while making high-risk decisions.
Researchers studied the brain activity of alcohol-dependent women as they responded to hypothetical situations involving alcohol, food and sex-related high-risk situations.
The study compared the brain activity of the alcohol-dependent women with a control group — women who were light, social drinkers.
She and her colleagues looked at the pattern of brain activation for alcohol-dependent women and for control women separately.
The results revealed a stark distinction between the brain activity found in alcohol-dependent women and the control group, Arcurio said.
“Control women activated regions that were part of the brain’s default mode network,” Arcurio said. “Traditionally, the network is activated while you’re resting. But very recently researchers are finding that this network is also involved in future planning.”
While the control group was activating regions of the brain that might be involved in future planning, the alcohol-dependent group was activating reward regions of the brain.
“This study points to a reality that underlines the importance of understanding the factors behind decisions to drink in low- and high-risk situation,” Peter Finn,
director of the Behavioral Alcohol Research Laboratory and co-author of the study said. “If we understand mechanisms underlying problematic and risky drinking then
this might be helpful in learning more about that and figuring out preventive and treatment methods.”
The alcohol-dependent women switching between different brain networks are potentially problematic, Arcurio said.
“What we’re thinking is that alcohol-dependent women have a probable difficulty in figuring what strategy to use when they’re facing a high risk decision to drink alcohol,” Arcurio said.
Arcurio said this is the first study of its kind to examine risky drinking exclusively with women.
“We looked at risky decision making, especially decisions to drink alcohol,” she said.
“This task is one of the first to take an ecological approach — to take a drinking task and see what neurological networks are activated for high and low-risk decisions to drink.”
The results of this study are the culmination of two years of recruiting and research.
“We put fliers around town and campus recruiting women between the ages of 18 to 28,” Arcurio said. “We wanted to focus on the college drinking and young adult age.”
During the study, the women were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanner. Both groups were confronted with hypothetical high-risk and low-risk drinking situations.
Participants were shown images and asked to rate their likelihood to drink alcohol, eat food, buy an item or have sex with someone on a four-point scale, where 1 = very unlikely and 4 = very likely, Arcurio said. The risk information varied depending on the situation.
A brain scanner collected images of the subjects’ brains as they made decisions.
“We process all of the imaging data and compare the alcohol-dependent group decisions to our control group decision,” Arcurio said.
The alcohol-dependent group is activating three different major networks of the brain, Arcurio said.
Arcurio said she hopes the findings of this study lead to specific interventions to help alcohol-dependent women.
“It’s really important to find interventions for women who have problems drinking when they’re young adults,” she said.
Follow reporter Javonte Anderson on Twitter @JavonteA.