Study shows that females are more sensitive to external factors that promote alcohol use

April 2, 2015 by Ashley Trentrock, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

A study conducted in rats measuring risk factors that contribute to alcohol abuse suggests females are particularly sensitive to alcohol-related cues and stress which elicits a "craving" response.

"Traditionally, heavy drinking has been shown to be more prevalent in men, though more recent studies point to a narrowing in the gender gap," said Megan Bertholomey, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in the laboratory of Mary Torregrossa, Ph.D., at the University of Pittsburgh who conducted the research. "Further, alcohol-dependent women tend to show more negative emotional responses to drinking, including greater stress and anxiety."

To investigate sex differences in the role stress plays in , the researchers first trained male and female to press a lever, which would then administer alcohol simultaneously paired with an audiovisual cue. After three weeks of drinking, the rats associated the cue with alcohol.

The rats then underwent a period of abstinence with no audiovisual cue and no ; regardless of how many times they pressed the lever. However, those original alcohol-cue memories do not go away during abstinence, allowing the researchers to determine factors that can cause the rats to start responding again.

"It's well established that exposure to alcohol-associated cues and to stress can lead to reinstatement of the drug seeking response, which is thought to be a model of craving or relapse in rats," said Bertholomey, who will present the research at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology 2015.

Prior studies show that exposure to both cues and stress can have an additive effect on the propensity to cause craving and relapse in both people and in rats, and that females trained to respond for cocaine may be more sensitive to this effect. Thus, the researchers tested whether reinstatement of alcohol responding was different in male and in the presence of the alcohol-paired cue with or without an injection of a drug that increases stress. The drug used, yohimbine, also produces a in humans, which assists in making comparisons across species.

The researchers found that overall, the female rats pressed more on the lever that previously led to alcohol access than the males following either cue or alone. Strikingly, when the cues and stress were combined, females had an even greater increase in alcohol seeking behavior compared to males and when either stimulus was given alone.

The results indicate that females are more influenced by environmental cues and stress in promoting a "craving"-like response that can drive them to seek and consume alcohol. These findings provide the basis for dissecting the brain pathways that causes the interactions between cues, and sex in alcohol seeking and drinking behavior.

"Individuals attempting to maintain abstinence are exposed to a number of factors that elicit craving and can lead to an increased risk of relapse," said Bertholomey. "The next step for us will be to understand the mechanisms responsible for this enhanced sensitivity in females, which will direct further development of pharmacological and behavioral interventions that might reduce craving and prevent relapse."

Alcohol use disorders are diagnosed in approximately 17 million adults in the United States, representing 9.9 and 4.6 percent of men and women in that age group, respectively, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that -related problems cost the United States $223.5 billion and represent the third leading cause of preventable death.

Explore further: Ghrelin stimulates an appetite for drinking alcohol

Related Stories

Ghrelin stimulates an appetite for drinking alcohol

October 29, 2014
Ghrelin is a hormone released by the stomach and it stimulates appetite and food intake. Alcohol is commonly viewed as a psychoactive substance that primarily affects brain function, but it is also a highly caloric food.

Sobering effect of the love hormone (w/ Video)

February 23, 2015
Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the 'love' or 'cuddle' hormone, has a legendary status in popular culture due to its vital role in social and sexual behaviour and long-term bonding.

Study reveals how smoking increases vulnerability to alcohol abuse

July 18, 2013
Smoking is a well-known risk factor for subsequent alcohol abuse, but the mechanisms underlying this link are unknown. Now researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Neuron on July 18 show in a study conducted in rats ...

Stress increases motivation, amount spent for alcohol, research finds

January 21, 2015
The effects of stress can change the way heavy drinkers seek alcohol-and how much they're willing to spend to get it, a new University of Georgia study has found.

Addiction relapse might be thwarted by turning off brain trigger

June 23, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UC San Francisco have been able to identify and deactivate a brain pathway linked to memories that cause alcohol cravings in rats, a finding ...

Scientists focus on brain protein and antibiotic to block cocaine craving

June 3, 2013
A new study conducted by a team of Indiana University neuroscientists demonstrates that GLT1, a protein that clears glutamate from the brain, plays a critical role in the craving for cocaine that develops after only several ...

Recommended for you

Gaming or gambling? Online transactions blur boundaries

June 28, 2018
In-game purchasing systems, such as 'loot boxes', in popular online games resemble gambling and may pose financial risks for vulnerable players, according to gambling psychology researchers at the University of Adelaide.

Exercise helps treat addiction by altering brain's dopamine system

May 28, 2018
New research by the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions has identified a key mechanism in how aerobic exercise can help impact the brain in ways that may support treatment—and even prevention strategies—for ...

Warning labels on alcohol containers highly deficient, new research shows

May 21, 2018
Current health warning labels on alcohol beverage containers in New Zealand are highly deficient, new research from the University of Otago, Wellington shows.

Serving smaller alcoholic drinks could reduce the U.K.'s alcohol consumption

May 14, 2018
New research published in Addiction, conducted by researchers from the Universities of Liverpool and Sheffield, highlights the potential benefits of reducing the standard serving size of alcoholic beverages.

Anti-alcoholism drug shows promise in animal models

May 3, 2018
Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin have successfully tested in animals a drug that, they say, may one day help block the withdrawal symptoms and cravings that incessantly coax people with alcoholism to drink. ...

FDA-approved drugs to treat diabetes and obesity may reduce cocaine relapse and help addicted people break the habit

April 28, 2018
Cocaine and other drugs of abuse hijack the natural reward circuits in the brain. In part, that's why it's so hard to quit using these substances. Moreover, relapse rates hover between 40 and 60 percent, similar to rates ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.