Heavy Drinkers Show Unique Brain Activity

The term “heavy drinker” describes someone who regularly consumes alcohol in large daily or weekly amounts. As a rule, these individuals have increased odds of an alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse or alcoholism).

In a 2014 Neuropsychopharmacology study, researchers from five U.S. universities used a brain imaging technique to investigate how heavy drinkers make economic decisions about alcohol consumption.

How Much Is Too Much?

Public health guidelines for what constitutes heavy drinking vary according to gender. Men, who typically have fairly high body weights and process alcohol relatively quickly, drink heavily when they consume more than four drinks in one day or more than 14 drinks in one week. Women, who typically have fairly low body weights and process alcohol relatively slowly, drink heavily when they consume more than three drinks in one day or more than seven drinks in one week. The daily and weekly totals for heavy drinking are independently defined standards. This means that a person can still qualify as a heavy drinker by exceeding the weekly maximum for alcohol intake, even if he or she never exceeds the daily maximum for alcohol intake on any given day.

The chances that a person will develop alcohol use disorder rise in proportion to the number of times he or she drinks heavily each month. At the low end of the scale, one episode of heavy drinking per month will increase long-term risks for the disorder by roughly 20 percent. At the high end of the scale, multiple episodes of heavy drinking per week will increase the long-term risks for alcohol use disorder by fully 50 percent.

Cost-benefit decision-making is based on the understanding that a choice to undertake one course of action will likely shut down the opportunity to take some other course of action. When the costs and benefits of a situation are financial in nature, economists commonly refer to this decision-making process as cost-benefit analysis or budgeting. In modern-day, income-based societies, all people responsible for their own welfare must decide how to spend their limited resources and get as much benefit as possible from their expenditures. Since alcohol costs money and heavy drinkers consume above-average amounts of alcohol, these individuals must weigh the perceived “benefits” of continued drinking against the economic costs of this drinking.

Being A Heavy Drinker Affects Decision-Making

In the study published in Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of Missouri, Brown University, the University of Memphis and UCLA used a real-time brain-imaging procedure called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine the decision-making processes of heavy drinkers trying to weigh the pros and cons of spending money on alcohol. This project included 24 men between the ages of 21 and 31, all of whom were previously identified as heavy drinkers. Each of these men was given a certain amount of money to either keep or spend on alcohol in a bar-like setting. The researchers asked the participants to make their choices about how to spend their money while an fMRI machine examined the associated changes in their brain function. The drinkers were allowed to purchase a maximum of eight drinks.

The researchers found that when the study participants had enough money to purchase the alcohol they wanted, only certain areas of their brains showed signs of elevated activity. However, when the participants’ resources ran low and they had to make hard choices about spending more money on alcohol, other brain areas also activated; as a result, their brains’ overall levels of activity increased significantly. Interestingly, after the drinkers made the firm decision that they didn’t have enough money to keep drinking, their brain activity dropped back to lower levels.

The Neuropsychopharmacology authors note that the spike in brain activity that appears when heavy drinkers face tough cost-benefit decisions about alcohol intake may indicate a point of overlap between the areas of the brain responsible for promoting rational thinking and the regions that trigger impulsive or spontaneous actions. They believe that a better understanding of the interaction between these two groups of brain areas could eventually contribute to the improvement of available treatments for alcoholics.

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