Alcohol-related studies are always fun, aren’t they? And they certainly seem to grab people’s attention, which must be why they get press releases and media coverage on a consistent basis, even when they’re slightly ridiculous.
Case in point; a recent study from the University of Illinois at Chicago has revealed that alcohol debilitates the neural connections that send signals between the areas of the brain working together to interpret and respond to social signals. Of course, it’s been known for some time that alcohol inhibits the amygdala – the area of the brain responsible for perceiving social cues such as facial expressions. But the researcher thought perhaps the retardation of signal processing went deeper.
To test out this theory, researchers put 12 socially heavy drinkers in an fMRI scanner and had them sort out facial expressions. Their primary objective was to match the emotion being displayed on one face with two other photos. Obviously, only one of those other photos showed the same expression.
Some of the participants were given a placebo while others were given a 16 percent ABV beverage to consume, based on body weight, and were tested with a breathalyzer just to make damned sure they were past the legal limit. They then had their brains scanned while they tried to identify and match the emotions being portrayed by the faces on their screens.
When participants processed images of angry, fearful and happy faces, alcohol reduced the coupling between the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the prefrontal cortex implicated in socio-emotional information processing and decision-making. The researchers also noticed that alcohol reduced the reaction in the amygdala to threat signals — angry or fearful faces.
Of course, does this come as any big surprise to anyone? Has science yet shown an area of the brain that is impervious to the effects of alcohol? As far as I’m concerned, the stuff seems to affect just about everything from motor control, to balance, to speaking patterns, to just the straight-out ability to think clearly. Surely some of those side-effects are a bit more troublesome than a slight decrease in the ability to recognize and process social cues?
Says the guy who’s never been in a bar fight…
The study, “Alcohol attenuates amygdala–frontal connectivity during processing social signals in heavy social drinkers,” was published in Psychopharmacology by K. Luan Phan, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as Stephanie Gorka and Daniel Fitzgerald also from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Andrea King from the University of Chicago.