Alcoholic drinks are consumed in almost every country around the world. And statistics from the World Health Organization indicate that in many countries, the incidence of alcoholism is on the rise -- and that drinking is a problem for both men and women.
Researchers are slowly learning about the physical effects of alcohol on the brain. They're finding that parts of the brain actually change over time when exposed to high levels of alcohol. Barbara Flannery from the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina wanted to explore how those changes affected alcoholics' cognitive abilities, specifically, what are known as "higher order functions."
Flannery explains, "these can be conceived as self-regulatory supervisory functions. It has to do with being able to function in a purposeful manner, on a day-to-day basis, interpersonal relationships, being able to interpret social cues and so forth."
She studied about 100 Russian men and women, giving them tasks that tested their higher order functions. "What we found was that the alcoholics in general, both males and females, performed more poorly on our set of executive cognitive tasks than did the controls." The researchers also compared the performance of men and women. "When we looked at just the alcohol dependent males and females," she says, "there were differences in how they responded to these tasks."
Flannery says part of the problem for women is that they respond differently to alcohol than men. "The negative consequences of alcohol abuse occur more rapidly in women than they do in men, and they do so in the situation where not only is the duration of the drinking less but the quantity of drinking is less." She says this is because women metabolize alcohol differently than men. Her study also indicates that women drinkers are subject to physical changes in the brain more quickly than men.
Her research appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.