Alcohol Has Dizzyingly Different Effects on Men and Women

Edith Sullivan, a researcher at Stanford University's School of Medicine, says women and men seem to fare equally well in the recovery stage of alcoholism.

This is your brain on alcohol. If you are adolescent and female: consume four drinks at one sitting, and you leave yourself vulnerable to compromising what is know as your spatial working memory. Binge drinking in adolescence can interrupt normal brain cell growth, particularly in the frontal brain regions critical to logical thinking and reasoning. In short, it damages cognitive abilities — especially in female teens.

“Even though adolescents look like adults, their brains are still maturing,” says researcher Lindsay Squeglia, lead author of a new study in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. “Throughout adolescence, the brain is becoming more efficient, pruning. In female drinkers, we found that the pre-frontal cortex was not thinning properly. This affects executive functioning.”

“Are the girls trying to keep up with the boys?” asks Edith Sullivan, a researcher at Stanford’s School of Medicine. “Quantity and frequency can be a killer for novice drinkers. Adding alcohol to the mix of the developing brain will likely complicate the normal developmental trajectory. Long after a young person recovers from a hangover, risk to cognitive and brain functions endures.”

Sullivan, who has done a lot of work with the brain structure of alcoholics, is certain that what is known as “telescoping” is real: “As they develop alcoholism, women seem to develop dependence sooner than men. Drink for drink, it is worse for females.”

Do adult women have more difficulty recovering from alcoholism? According to Sullivan, “The jury is out as to whether men or women recover faster. We have studied alcohol dependent men and women, and have found similar extents of regional brain tissue shrinkage. Women look no worse off than men. To me, that’s good news.”

Sullivan underscores that recovery is possible: “Alcoholism is a dynamic process. It takes a while to develop, and to resolve. I like to use the stroke model: they get a year to recover.”

What leads to alcoholism in one person, and not in another? “Style of drinking factors,” says Sullivan. “And genetic background — some people may be more prone to alcoholism.”

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