Gentlemen prefer booze

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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Psychiatrists may have discovered the scientific explanation forAnimal House—and every epic frat party before and since. A recent study shows that men experience greater pleasure from drinking alcohol than women do, because liquor triggers their brains to release a higher amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that causes euphoria.

But when the fun is over, there are downsides. Researchers say the additional dopamine may help explain why men, especially those who can hold their liquor, are twice as likely as women to become alcoholics. “It’s not just that people who release more dopamine like it better,” says John H. Krystal ’84MD, chair of the Yale psychiatry department and one of 11 authors of the study (published in Biological Psychology). “They also learn to want it more.”

The researchers tested how the brains of 21 young social drinkers reacted to alcohol, on two separate days. On one day, the men and women were given juice mixed with a trace amount of alcohol. Then the scientists used PET scanners to measure the dopamine released in the subjects’ brains. They expected the effect to be minimal, Krystal says, and it was; but they wanted to control for the possibility that people would feel euphoric just because they thought they were getting drunk. On a different day, when the subjects were given stronger drinks, dopamine levels were higher—and the men’s brains released more than twice as much dopamine as the women’s.

Krystal and other researchers hope to develop ways to damp down dopamine release in the brains of people predisposed to alcoholism. Through medication or other means, young drinkers with a family history of the disease might be able to reduce their chances of becoming problem drinkers. Of course, they might also find that the aforementioned frat parties feel more like polite cocktail hours.  


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