Frontier: Alcohol Can Harm Women’s Brains

by Elizabeth Norton Lasley

May, 2007

Alcoholism can cause long-term mental impairments; some research hints that this type of functional brain damage is worse for women. A study in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research finds that cognitive problems also develop more quickly in women who are alcoholics.

“Women are more vulnerable to liver and heart disease resulting from alcohol,” says Barbara Flannery of the Baltimore office of RTI International, a research institute headquartered in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “But the cognitive effects have been less well studied.”

Flannery and colleagues at RTI, Johns Hopkins University, and the Pavlov Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, examined a group of 78 male and 24 female alcoholic patients from a two-year study of substance abuse in Russia. Participants performed computer-based tests of problem solving, memory, reaction time, and concentration.

Female alcoholic subjects did most poorly on tests that measured working memory, the ability to weigh risks, and the ability to filter out distractions. In decision-making tests, the women both took longer to respond and more frequently gave the wrong answer—indicating that their reasoning was affected, not merely that they were answering impulsively.

Flannery adds that the women had been alcohol-dependent for less time than the men. “Alcoholism is underdiagnosed in the United States, and we need to talk about it across genders,” says Flannery. “But the negative impact may occur more quickly in women.”