Under the Hood

Binge Drinking Affects Male And Female Brains Differently

In a study with mice, researchers found repeated binge drinking produced different responses in the brains of males versus females. Of more than a hundred genes regulated by binge drinking, only 14 were regulated in both sexes.

The findings are said to have implications for the treatment of alcohol use disorder, estimated to affect 16 million people in the United States.

The study titled "Binge Ethanol Drinking Produces Sexually Divergent and Distinct Changes in Nucleus Accumbens Signaling Cascades and Pathways in Adult C57BL/6J Mice" was published in Frontiers in Genetics on Sept. 10.

"We show that repeated binge drinking significantly alters molecular pathways in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain linked to addiction," explained Deborah Finn, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University.

She and her research team decided to examine how repeated binge drinking affected the brains of mice and if there were differences between male and female mice. They looked at the genes that were activated in the nucleus accumbens, specifically 384 genes which were previously identified as important in addiction and mood disorders. 

"Of a total of 106 genes regulated by binge drinking, only 14 were regulated in both males and females, representing common targets to binge drinking. Interestingly, only 4 of these 14 genes were regulated in the same direction and the top 30 genes regulated by binge drinking in each sex differed markedly," Finn revealed.

As per the findings, genes associated with hormone signaling and immune system function were affected by repeated binge drinking in the female brains. Meanwhile, genes associated with nerve signaling were found to be a "central target" in the male brains.

Earlier this year, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed nearly 20 percent of adults in the U.S. participate in binge drinking. If left uncontrolled over a long period, the practice can be considered an early warning sign for alcohol dependence. Binge drinking can eventually lead to a high tolerance for alcohol, which also brings complications.

The new findings may be worth considering when providing treatment to someone diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, the authors say. Therapies and interventions have the potential to be more effective if they were tailored based on whether the patient is male or female.

"We have shown that pharmacologically manipulating a pathway in both sexes that only was affected by binge drinking in males did not decrease binge drinking in females; binge drinking was only decreased in males," Finn said.

"A consideration of sex is critical in the development of potential pharmacological therapies for the treatment of alcohol use disorder," she added.

In further studies, the research team hoped to explore and determine if these gene expression changes also correspond to behavioral and/or physiological differences.