Study after study confirms that alcohol can negatively affect numerous areas of the brain by doing such things as interfering with communication between nerve cells, interacting with cell receptors or simply destroying cells.
A new study sheds further light on these effects by demonstrating that certain regions of the brain involved with error processing are impacted by alcohol more than others.
“We know [alcohol] alters behavior, but surprisingly, it is not well studied at the brain level,” said Beth Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Centre at Connecticut-based Hartford Hospital and lead author of the paper.
“Once we understand how it is altering the brain, we can better inform the public of the consequences of drinking alcohol.”
The team of researchers provided varying amounts of alcohol to 38 participants, establishing three levels of intoxication.
A control group was formed with a breath alcohol concentration of zero. The second and third groups were administered doses to achieve a breath alcohol concentration of 0.05 percent and .1 percent respectively, representing moderate and high levels of alcohol intake.
Breath Alcohol Concentration is the amount of alcohol in a person’s breath and is expressed as the weight of ethanol, measured in grams, in 210 liters of breath. The legal BAC for driving in most states is less than .08.
Once the pre-determined levels were achieved, volunteers participated in a response timing game. The Go/No-Go reaction test was used to test response time and errors. The game encompassed displaying the letters “K” or “X” on a screen, and participants were asked to only press a button when an “X” was displayed.
Findings revealed that the group intoxicated at the highest level had increased reaction time and more mistakes. They also demonstrated an overall decrease in successful trials.
For the control group and those intoxicated at a moderate level, there was no notable data.
Anderson believes that the fact that there were no notable differences between the control group and those in the moderate consumption group was a result of the ability of the participants to partially compensate for the effects of the alcohol. She added that if the dose of alcohol increased over time, they would have likely had more difficulty achieving this result.
“The increased reaction time was likely an attempt to compensate for their impairment. They may have slowed down in an attempt to keep from making more errors,” Anderson suggested.
According to Anderson, the research is the first step to a much broader process as the findings only open up more questions about how alcohol impairs the control centers of the brain.
Statistics suggest that roughly 14 million people in the U.S. abuse alcohol, and it is the third leading cause of preventable deaths.
This study will be released in the January 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. It is currently available at Early View.