News Release 

Gender differentiates how facial expressions are processed in the brains of alcoholics

Findings suggest that clinicians, educators and public health officials should approach different prevention and treatment strategies for men and women

Boston University School of Medicine

Research News

(Boston)--Should treatment of alcoholics be different based on gender? Yes, according to a new study that shows that alcoholic men and women respond differently to their disease resulting in different levels of brain activity and brain abnormalities. Research indicates that they distinguish facial expressions differently and that this is an important clue as to how treatment strategies might be tailored.

Chronic long-term Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) or "alcoholism," is a harmful condition that has been associated with deficits in emotion and memory, including memory for the emotional expressions of faces. In addition to its effects on memory for facial emotions, AUD also has been associated with impairments in the processing of facial emotional expressions which can endure after months or years of sobriety.

While prior studies have shown that ones' gender influences alcohol's impacts on the brain, this new research has found that the brain responds to emotional facial expressions differently in men and women. "Surprisingly, there were brain abnormalities for abstinent men with AUD that turned out to be unlike the abnormalities of abstinent women with AUD," said corresponding author and research scientist Kayle S. Sawyer, PhD, from the Psychology Research Service of the VA Boston Healthcare System, the department of anatomy and neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), and radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

This project, led by BUSM's Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD, and MGH's Gordon Harris, PhD, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the brain activity of a group of men and women with and without a history of AUD while they completed an emotional face memory task. The researchers then looked at activation differences between when they were looking at a fixation stimulus (plus signs) and when they were looking at photographs of faces with different facial expressions.

They found the faces elicited a similar overall pattern of activation for all four groups. "But when we compared the groups, we noticed important differences in their levels of activation. For example, the alcoholic men showed abnormally high activity in the frontal area of the brain that was not obvious in the alcoholic women," explained Sawyer. "These findings indicate that the experiences and mechanisms of alcohol addiction differ for the two genders," he added.

The researchers believe this study has implications for clinical research and more generally suggests that clinicians should consider gender carefully when treating alcohol use disorders.

"Researchers should examine gender differences in many medical conditions, so that prevention and treatment strategies can be better tailored to individuals instead of applied generically using group averages. One important way that they can be tailored is by treating men and women differently when that is appropriate and beneficial and when justified by the research."

Prior research by this same group found abstinent alcoholic men have more diminished brain activity in areas responsible for emotional processing (limbic regions including the amygdala and hippocampus), as well as memory and social processing (cortical regions including the superior frontal and supramarginal regions) among other functions compared to alcoholic women.

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These findings appear online in the journal PLOS One.

This work was supported by funds from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA; https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/) of the National Institutes of Health US Department of Health and Human Services under Award Numbers R01AA007112 and K05AA00219 awarded to M.O.B.; US Department of Veterans Affairs Clinical Science Research and Development (https://www.research.va.gov/services/csrd/) grant I01CX000326 awarded to M.O.B; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health US Department of Health and Human Services under Award Numbers 1S10RR023401, 1S10RR019307, 1S10RR023043, and 1UL1TR001430. The grants provided support in the form of salaries for authors M.O.B., S.M.R., K.M., M.M.V., G.J.H., and K.S.S., but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. K.S.S. is an employee of Sawyer Scientific, LLC, and this affiliation provided no funding related to the work described in this manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are articulated in the 'author contributions' section. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or the United States Government.

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