In a study that will be published this month in Psychopharmacology, researchers have discovered that alcohol intoxication reduces communication between two areas of the brain that work together in interpreting and processing social cues. Previous research has indicated that alcohol intoxication suppresses activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for decoding social cues like facial expressions, among other responsibilities. Along with the amygdala, areas of the brain in the prefrontal cortex region are crucial in the cognition of emotion. Researchers wanted to explore any alterations in the connectivity between these two brain areas in regards to alcohol consumption.
In this study, 12 heavy social drinkers were chosen.
Of the 12 chosen, ten were men and two were women with the average age being 23. For the study, the definition of heavy social drinking (or binge drinking) was the consumption of five or more drinks in a single episode or event and four drinks or more for women. Using that criterion as a baseline, there were are average of 7.8 binge drinking episodes within the study group.
The participants were given either a drink with a high concentration of alcohol (16 percent) or a placebo drink. After consumption of the beverage, participants were shown a series of photographs showing happy, fearful or angry faces. Those in the study were shown three faces on a screen with one face at the top and two at the bottom. They were asked to pick the face at the bottom whose expression matched the face shown at the top of the screen. Participants were hooked up to an fMRI scanner so they researchers could study the brain patterns as the participants tried to match faces.
What Was Discovered?
When participants were matching the faces as part of the study, researchers found there was reduced coupling and communication between the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex is an area that is responsible for decision making and informational processing. Another interesting finding is that with alcohol exposure and intoxication, the reaction time of the amygdala to threats (angry or fearful faces) were diminished. Because the amygdala is crucial in the processing of emotional cues and the proper ways to interpret these cues, any threat signals in one’s environment could be delayed or misinterpreted.
Both the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex regions of the brain are extremely active and have deep connections in emotional processing in our environment. With alcohol intoxication, the communication between these two areas are impaired and people who are intoxicated are not able to accurately judge their environment and aren’t able to fashion appropriate responses. As a result, there is social disinhibition, aggressive tendencies, or withdrawal. Knowing how these neural triggers function or malfunction under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is crucial for future research.
Tim Powers – bald, tattooed, a business professional by day and rocker by night. Sober by the grace of God since the 8th of May in the year of our Lord 2003. Sharing my stories and myself in order to pay it forward. You can follow me on Twitter @tpowersbass42