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Heavy drinking may harm men more than women, say scientists who found that long-term alcohol use affects brain functions in both genders differently. Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland and Kuopio University Hospital in Finland worked with 11 young men and 16 young women who had a heavy 10-year alcohol use, and compared them with 12 young men and 13 young women who had little or no alcohol use. All were between 23 to 28 years old at the time the measurements were taken. The researchers examined the responses of the brain to being stimulated by magnetic pulses - known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which activates brain neurons.
The brain activity was measured using EEG (electroencephalogram). Previously, the researchers had found that heavy alcohol users showed a greater electrical response in the cortex of the brain than non-alcohol users, which indicates that there had been long-term changes to how the brain responds. This time, they found that young men and young women responded differently, with males showing a greater increase in electrical activity in the brain in response to a TMS pulse. "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," said Outi Kaarre from University of Eastern Finland. "This means that male brain electrical functioning is changed more than female brains by long-term alcohol use," said Kaarre. The EEGs also allowed the researchers to show that male brains have greater electrical activity associated with the GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) neurotransmission than do female brains. "Generally, our work showed that alcohol causes more pronounced changes in both electrical and chemical neurotransmission in men than women," said Kaarre. "Our work offers a possible mechanism to these differences," she said. The research shows that long-term alcohol use affects young men and women very differently, and how these differences manifest themselves needs to be determined. "We need to look at tightening regulations on youth drinking, since none of our study participants met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorders and still these significant changes in brain functioning were found," Kaarre said. "It may also mean that gender differences should be taken into account when planning pharmacological treatment for alcoholism," she said.