Page last updated: Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Drinking alcohol dulls the brain's ability to detect threats
A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) study has found that drinking reduces awareness of threats to personal safety.

Study author Jodi Gilman studied 12 people who were given intravenous infusions of alcohol and then monitored their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging while they looked at pictures of frightened and neutral faces.

As expected, when people were given the placebo, their brains responded to the fearful faces.

“Our brains respond more to fearful stimuli ...They signal to us that we are in threatening situations,” Gilman explained. However, when the same people were given infusions of alcohol, this response was dulled, suggesting that while intoxicated, the brain can’t distinguish between the threatening and non-threatening stimuli.

The study found that alcohol increases activity in a reward center of the brain known as the striatum. The researchers also found a link between the level of activation in this region and how intoxicated people said they were feeling, which could help account for the addictive properties of alcohol.

“This is important because we think we can develop potential treatments for alcoholism,” Gilman said. People in the study were social drinkers, not heavy drinkers. The research team plans to conduct the study in heavy drinkers next.

Source: Why We Like to Drink: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study of the Rewarding and Anxiolytic Effects of Alcohol The Journal of Neuroscience, April 30, 2008, 28(18):4583-4591

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