New study sheds light on effects of alcohol

By Bridget Maiellaro

A new study conducted by Duke University researchers suggests that women are less sensitive to the effects of alcohol than men, but more vulnerable to alcohol related health problems.

“There is a common perception that women are far more sensitive to alcohol than men,” said Scott Swartzwelder, senior author of the study and a professor at Duke University. “Our research shows that it’s not true.”

The study, which used rats as models, determined each sex’s behavioral effects after consuming ethanol, more commonly referred to as grain alcohol, and also the function of particular cells in the brain that regulate alcohol’s sedation effects.

The team of four researchers recorded actual brain mechanisms of the rats by removing the brain from the body, slicing it up into several pieces and recording the cells’ activities. The metabolic rates, how fast the rats’ bodies metabolized the ethanol, were not a factor.

“In a neuronal sense, we found that female brain cells were less sensitive to the brain’s sedation effects,” Swartzwelder said. “This doesn’t mean women should drink like crazy. Metabolic considerations do count.”

Jen Bochenek, sophomore in LAS, is one of many female students whose drinking habits will not change due to the new research.

“I’m quite content with my current alcohol level,” she said. “College isn’t like high school. People aren’t as surprised with a girl who can out drink everyone else.”

The findings also suggest that women are more vulnerable to the negative health effects associated with alcohol. Some of these health problems include cirrhosis of the liver, brain disease, cancer and heart disease.

“Statistically, women are less likely to become alcoholics, but if they do, the effects are more severe,” said Young May Cha, the study’s lead author and a research analyst at Duke University Medical Center.

Swartzwelder believes the reason for negative effects may be that women achieve a higher blood concentration than males when drinking, even when they weigh the same amount.

The reason for this higher blood concentration is because women’s bodies have less water than men’s bodies, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a research institute for alcoholism.

“Even when you try to control the blood concentrate, women just seem to be more sensitive for reasons unknown,” Swartzwelder said. “It remains a mystery.”

The findings suggest that women’s sensitivity to alcohol changes with their menstrual cycle. Researchers gave a high dose of ethanol to female rats and found that in certain stages of the estrous cycle, similar to the female menstrual cycle, the rats were even less sedated.

Regardless of the cycle, however, all female rats are still less sensitive to ethanol than the males, Cha said.

“Women should be very careful because they may be able to drink more than men and not fall asleep,” she said. “It’s possible they may not be aware of how much alcohol is actually in their bloodstreams.”

The research stemmed off of a broader study, which is examining the difference in how alcohol affects learning and memory in adolescents and adults.

“These findings open up a whole new level of inquiry,” Swartzwelder said. “The fact that alcohol does this might help us understand something more fundamental between men and women’s brains.”