Drinking too much can take a serious toll on anyone’s health, but the effects may be especially devastating for men. According to new research, young men who are heavy drinkers may experience different changes in their brains than women who drink heavily.

To study the effects of long-term harm from alcohol use, Finnish researchers examined the brain responses of both drinkers and nondrinkers as they were being stimulated by magnetic pulses.

“We found more changes in brain electrical activity in male subjects, than in females, which was a surprise, as we expected it would be the other way around,” study author Dr. Outi Kaarre said in a statement. “This means that male brain electrical functioning is changed more than female brains by long-term alcohol use.”

Kaarre and her colleagues' research, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, involved a group of 11 men and 16 women who drank heavily for a decade. They were compared to a group of 12 men and 13 women who drank little to no alcohol. All of the participants were in their twenties.

The researchers stimulated the participants’ brains using a noninvasive procedure known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). The process involves placing an electromagnetic coil on a person’s head, which sends pulses that trigger activity in the brain’s nerve cells. Additionally, the research team measured participants' brain activity through EEG (electroencephalogram), a painless procedure involving electrodes attached to the scalp.

The findings revealed the males' brains had more electrical activity, specifically involving the GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) neurotransmission, than female brains. GABA, found naturally in the brain, helps regulate central nervous system functions, calm down brain activity, and aids in regulating anxiety and depression.

“There are two types of GABA receptors, A and B. Long-term alcohol use affects neurotransmission through both types in males, but only one type, GABA-A, is affected in females,” Kaarre explained.

She notes that more research is needed to better understand what her findings mean. Past research on animal models has showed that GABA-A receptor activity may influence drinking patterns, whereas GABA-B receptors may be related to the overall desire for alcohol.

One limitation of the study is that a person may have had changes in their brain before they started drinking. Therefore, the alcohol may not have been the root of the problem. Either way, heavy drinking still can play a role in brain problems as well as other health issues including liver disease, heart disease, and sleep disorders, among others.

The study was presented this week at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology conference in Paris.