New Study Shows Alcohol Inhibits Processing Social Cues
While many people drink alcohol to relax and encourage social interactions, a recent study showed that too much alcohol can inhibit us from processing social cues and behaviors.
Previous research has shown that alcohol suppresses activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain responsible for interpreting cues such as facial expressions and gestures.
This new study, spearheaded by Dr. K. Luan Phan, UIC professor of psychiatry, sought to find if there were alterations in the connectivity between the amygdala and areas of the brain responsible for cognition and modulation of behavior.
Using an imaging technique that allows researchers to see which areas of the brain are active during the performance of various tasks, Phan and colleagues examined alcohol's effects on connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex during the processing of emotional stimuli – photographs of happy, fearful and angry faces.
Participants were given a beverage containing either a high dose of alcohol (16 percent) or placebo. They then had an fMRI scan as they tried to match photographs of faces with the same expression.
What they found was this: alcohol reduced the coupling between the amygdala and the area of the prefrontal cortex involved 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.
"This suggests that during acute alcohol intoxication, emotional cues that signal threat are not being processed in the brain normally because the amygdala is not responding as it should be," Phan said. "This research gives us a much better idea of what is going on in the brain that leads to some of the maladaptive behaviors we see in alcohol intoxication," Phan said, "including social disinhibition, aggression and social withdrawal."
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