October 19th, 2010
05:57 PM ET

Brain chemical may explain alcoholism gender differences

Dopamine released in the brain after alcohol consumption may contribute to the development of alcoholism and explain why more men than women are alcoholics, suggests a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

The small study examined 21 participants, men and women ages 21 to 27, over two days. The participants were all "social drinkers" with an established tolerance for alcohol. Half of the participants were given a drink containing the equivalent of three shots of vodka and the rest were given a placebo. The drinks were adjusted to the various heights and weights of the participants so that everyone received a comparable amount of alcohol. Neither group was aware of what they were drinking and the groups were switched on the second day of testing.

After having a drink, each participant was given a PET scan to measure how much dopamine the alcohol had triggered to be released in the brain.

"We showed definitively that when young college age kids drink alcohol, it's actually producing dopamine in the brain, especially in the brain region associated with experiencing pleasure and reward," explains Dr. Nina Urban, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and corresponding author of the study.

The study found that the release of dopamine in the male participants was statistically greater than the release of dopamine in the female participants. Nationally, the risk of men developing alcohol use disorders is nearly twice as high as in women.

The study also found that most of the released dopamine was concentrated in an area of the brain known as the ventral striatum. That region involves rewarding behaviors and is often implicated in the development of addiction. That led researchers to hypothesize that in the male brain, drinking alcohol led to a greater amount of dopamine being released, which led men to associate alcohol with pleasure and positive rewards, thus prompting men to drink more.

"We don't know all men will become addicts but we do know the incidence of alcoholism is higher in men then women," says Dr. Anissa Abi-Dargham, senior author of the study. "Dopamine may be related to the propensity of developing addiction."

However, the researchers also found that once drinking alcohol becomes a habit, dopamine is no longer released in the brain as much, if at all.  That suggests that when a person becomes a fully developed alcoholic, they may be hard-wired to continue their compulsive behavior, according to the researchers.

"Dopamine is important in the beginning when you're exposed to the drug," explains Dr. Abi-Dargham. But once someone becomes addicted, "the same amount of the drug [alcohol] is somehow less rewarding yet there is a compulsive need to go back and consume it."

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Filed under: Addiction • Alcohol • Brain

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. Tommy; Oregon

    Results: men in study (non-alcoholics) released more dopamine than women in the study. Men are more likely to be alcoholics in general population. Therefore dopamine release is cause of alcoholism. Brilliant.

    October 19, 2010 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JDM

      Even better.... "The drinks were adjusted to the various heights and weights of the participants so that everyone received a comparable amount of alcohol." Brain mass, or size of participants' ventral striatum or dopamine output potential was not used for the normalization of intake levels. If the average man in their study weighed more, and was taller, they were given more alcohol. More alcohol = more dopamine production. Again, brilliant.

      October 19, 2010 at 21:35 | Report abuse |
    • Jeremy Brockwell

      Great to see recognition outside the lab of the role of brain chemistry in contracting and relief from addiction. This type of information is anathema to twelve steppers. Why? If a person believes she needs a higher power to be free, why not give credit to her higher power for scientific progress in therapy for addiction? Actually, far more is known, and even more still not discovered, about the role of brain chemistry and addiction. Start with the work of Dr. Joan Mathews-Larson at the Health Recovery Clinic in Minneapolis. Just google HRC and you will be amazed.

      October 20, 2010 at 10:35 | Report abuse |
  2. sanjosemike

    Dopamine? There's no surprise here. Dopamine has a definite "punishment/reward" effect in the brain. Why is anyone surprised about the connection? If we want to help control addictions, dopamine research has to be an important constituent.


    October 19, 2010 at 21:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Constantine

    So all we need – is more beer! or in this case vodka

    October 19, 2010 at 21:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • tlljcoh

      I'll drink to that!!!

      October 20, 2010 at 07:35 | Report abuse |
  4. kathleen orington

    My 3 brothers and my 1 sister were addicts...each one lived a life of great tragedy...two suicided due to etholism. The devistation of this disease is incomprehensible.WE NEED A CURE...any conclusive research that can lead the way is overdue.

    October 19, 2010 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JDM

      I agree that conclusive research would benefit many. n=21 is not conclusive.

      October 19, 2010 at 22:33 | Report abuse |
  5. Scarlett

    Clearly the authors of this study have little to no understanding of addiction. Yes, the substance makes you initiallyfeel better and this may well be to dopamine levels. However, they seem to have no understanding that the compulsive behavior comes from two things: 1) a PHYSICAL dependence on the drug. Detox is hell and most people would struggle with suffering through it until the physical dependence is broken and 2) the addictive behavior is a COPING mechanism that the addict uses. Most addicts are self-medicating. Instead of getting prescription drugs or therapy to deal with depression/anxiety/grief/etc. - they use the addictive substance to escape. Sadly, this is the hardest part to kick of any habit and there are no easy fixes or a one size fits all solution. And there is growing evidence that addiction alters brain chemistry permanently so that getting back to a pre-addiction state may not even be possible. I wish researchers would stop wasting time on studies that lead us no closer to eradicating this awful problem. As someone who has watched a loved one struggle with addiction for the last decade (and watched them waste thousands of dollars seeking a treatment that will really help), it saddens me that we are no closer to developing meaningful treatment. This person I love was a dumb college kid who thought he could quit any time he wanted to - ten years later, I live in dread of getting the phone call that he is either in jail (again) or dead. It breaks my heart that a brilliant guy got caught up in something he couldn't handle because he came from a sheltered life where the idea of getting addicted didn't even seem possible. It is sad that some mistakes can't be fixed ...

    October 19, 2010 at 23:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sam

      parkinsonism, akathesia dystonia, suicide, diabetes, shrinking of the brain. hmmm, can you tell me what these are a side effect from? and what are the side effects of pot? hmmmm, self medication safer than the over marketed psychoactive substances that they can "make" in a lab somewhere? can you say corporate influence? if you cant pattent it pay the government officials till they illegalize the healthier better drug that you cant pattent and you would actually have to sell it for market value, so you can patent a psych drug, and make thousands a month from just one person. and so you dont realize you are paying them, they have the insurance companys. and you wonder why we pay so much for healthcare? coruppt government officials and corporations working together to rip you off of every dime you have.

      October 20, 2010 at 05:30 | Report abuse |
  6. JN

    overdrinking also leads to short blog responses.

    October 19, 2010 at 23:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Steve

    I wonder if they spent the same amount on this study as they did with the one that proved consuming alcohol before driving caused more accidents. Duhh.

    October 19, 2010 at 23:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Elle

    Maybe the compulsion is directly related to the body's craving for the dopamine? is dopamine addictive? are there any studies on this? is dopamine released in other addictions as well?

    October 20, 2010 at 04:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Lisa Bays

    Anyone of you who criticizes any study involved in finding a cure for alcoholism, since there has been such a cruel, inhumane turning away from society in general toward this terrible disease, deserves to be abandoned upon contracting any disease(s) yourselves. There is no disease that I can think of worse than this one. I too have suffered by watching my son die from this but not as much as he has. The person suffers so much with no ability to control it and no viable help from others that they kill themselves in the end. There is no cure.

    October 20, 2010 at 06:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bill W

      I am sorry for your loss. You are correct that there is no hope to find a cure......on your own. There is a way however to arrest the insanity of alcohol additction proven through the past 75 years. It only costs a $1 per visit but requires honestly talking to others with the same problem. Look in the front of a phone book anywhere.

      October 20, 2010 at 08:59 | Report abuse |
  10. MAC

    Alcoholism has come to be nothing more than a skid mark in society’s collective underpants, and you are ignorant for thinking otherwise. It is the direct result of a litany of poor choices, and research should not be wasted on helping individuals that do not even help themselves. And alcoholism is the worst disease in your opinion? I believe a virus that causes people to bleed out of their eyes and rectum is pretty bad too.

    October 20, 2010 at 08:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joyce

      What a stupid, uneducated response.

      October 20, 2010 at 09:51 | Report abuse |
  11. Ted

    They're trying to tell me people couldn't tell if their drinks had alcohol in them just by the taste? Alcohol has a pretty distinct taste that's difficult to mask.

    October 20, 2010 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. teremist

    The tendency for addictive behavior, is also correlated to heredity. How much of that is genetic, and how much of it is learned, (making it both accepted and EXPECTED,) is open to debate. What we do KNOW is that long term, it is destructive, on every level. I doubt we will ever find a universal cure, our best hope lies in prevention. Therefore, I advocate serious and factual education, continuing from junior high school through out high school.

    October 20, 2010 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. MAC


    I assure you that I am more educated than you. Grow up.

    October 20, 2010 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Durk

    MAC is dead on.

    October 20, 2010 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. DDS

    Thats bull,,,Its a way to ESCAPE reality Like DOPE AND POT..........Unlike Cigarettes which by the way dont harm Others...

    October 20, 2010 at 12:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. C A

    Sorry, MAC. You're off base on this one.

    Brain scans have long since determined that addiction (in any form) distinctly alters brain function and chemistry. The latest tests have found that the brain scans for people with a food addiction match the brain scans for people with cocaine addictions. Science has barely even begun to map out the human brain, let alone how its various components and environmental exposures influence it. As anyone with an addiction can tell you, their behaviors are directly impacted by the chronic influences their addiction has on their decision-making abilities, and changing long-standing behaviors is not by any means easy. That's why finding a so-called "cure" is elusive, at best, but critical nonetheless. The cost for the individual, not to mention society in general, is astonomical, when you think about the damage it causes (one estimate holds that a much as 40% to 50% of all fatal car accidents are directly caused by chemical consumption–that directly impacts everyone!). It is important to get a handle on how addiction works and find a way to reliably treat it if we want to keep from having so many resources (people, property, money, etc) wasted.

    October 20, 2010 at 18:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Josey


    October 22, 2010 at 00:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. C A P

    In response to MAC and his pretentious "know it all" attitude, he's clearly not as intelligent as he claims. As of now there is no "cure" for this disease which CAUSES people to make poor choices. Bill W discussed ways to arrest the disease. The study demonstrates scientific evidence of biological and chemical responses in a controlled group. This evidence, though not really ground breaking, and sort of "common sense" is now in the books. Neuroscientists can prove that it is not a "social disease, but an actual biochemical imbalance in certain individuals. To think and say that alcoholism is a social disease is truly ignorant. Ask any recovering or active drunk if they planned on growing up to be an alcoholic, and I can guarantee not one of them will say yes. The Human condition always seeks escape from pain and misery. Some humans figured out a long time ago, that if you drank fermented wine or hops, that it felt good. Some of those humans could never get enough. They figured if one felt good, more would feel even better(the alcoholic) . If dopamine and or the lack of it's production is the root of addiction, then science and medicine have a starting place to work with. It's interesting to note that the study showed that dopamine production ceased in the heavy drinkers. That would explain the biological need for the euphoric feeling that "alcoholics" continue to seek through excessive alcoholic consumption. Therefore, alcoholism is a biological imbalance. It is a disease with out a cure from standardized western medicine. The study and possible cure is very important to our society because it impacts many peoples lives. Not just families, but it weighs on our economy too. Ask any judge, cop, or social worker how their "client's" ended up making poor choices, and they will tell you that most of the time it is a person who is driven by their addiction of alcohol and drugs.

    November 1, 2010 at 21:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Allen Blackburn

    When MAC becomes Type II diabetic, hypertensive, asthmatic (adult onset), obese, heart diseased, cancer ridden; maybe someone can come along and deny him care because, these diseases have lifestyle choices, as do addictions. Or, maybe someone will treat him with compassion, which is something we all desire to be treated with when we have a disease. Plus, all of these disease's involve personal responsibility to manage them, just as addictions do, no one decided that they wanted to become this way. Maybe, with time, MAC may become human which might involve developing compassion for others or, MAC will sound like the people on Fox News, shooting and blasting others while reaping millions and millions of dollars to turn humans against each other. No matter, are we not all lucky to have different friends who have developed compassion for our fellow person walking this journey of life. Hopefully Christian principals prevail that guide us with temperance, patience, wisdom, compassion, servitude, humility and a belief that; "There but for the grace of God, go I"

    December 15, 2010 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply

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