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Alcohol may hit women's brains harder

May 16, 2005 By Declan Butler This article courtesy of Nature News.

Do women pay a higher price for alcohol abuse than men?

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Women seem to suffer as much brain damage from booze as men after a shorter period of abuse, says a team of German scientists.

A team led by Karl Mann, an addiction researcher at the University of Heidelberg, compared brain scans of 34 male and 42 female alcoholics; they also looked at scans from more than 30 healthy members of each sex.

Although the women had been alcoholics for just 5.5 years on average, computed tomography scans revealed that they suffered the same extent of brain damage as the men, who had been alcoholics for an average of 10.4 years. The results are reported in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research1.

The women were drinking a little less than the men (13 drinks a day compared with 17). But when body weight is taken into account, the amount of alcohol consumed is about equivalent, Mann says. Both the male and female drinkers lost a few per cent of their total brain volume, a well-known effect of alcohol abuse.

Other studies have similarly suggested that women suffer from the effects of alcohol abuse faster. The negative effects include heart troubles, degeneration of skeletal muscle, and liver disease. Now, says Mann, it seems they also show a quicker onset of brain damage. Despite the fact that women tend to start drinking later in life, consume less, and are less likely to develop alcohol addiction than men, they seem to suffer more quickly if they become an alcoholic.

The study does provide some good news, however, for those with a penchant for the bottle. After six weeks of abstinence, brain atrophy was partially reversed in both sexes.

Topping the league

There could be other explanations for the results, points out Catherine Vidal, a neuroscientist at the French Atomic Energy Commission in Fontenay aux Roses on the outskirts of Paris. Perhaps the women's brains would not deteriorate further given another five years of drink, she says.

Alexander Diehl, one of the study's authors, acknowledges this weakness in the conclusions. He says that the next step should be to compare the brains of men and woman who have been alcoholics for the same duration, to see whether women's brains shrink at a faster rate.

Other factors could explain why brains are affected differently, says Vidal. "Someone who drinks only whisky will probably have a different profile from someone who drinks just white wine," she says. Men and women tend to drink different things at different times, she adds.

Young women are drinking more these days, according to a survey published on 2 May by the London-based market research firm Datamonitor. Consumption by 18- to 24-year-old women rose on average from 110 litres per person in 1999 to 148 litres in 2004, across both Europe and the United States. British women topped the European league, and if current trends continue they will, by 2009, consume the equivalent of three large glasses of wine a day, or 291 litres annually.


  1. Mann K., et al. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 29. 896 - 901 (2005).


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