Alcohol Health Risks: Female Drinkers Lose More Brain Cells Than Male Drinkers

Women may be at greater risk for brain damage caused by alcohol abuse. Omer Messinger/Getty Images

Chronic alcohol abuse is dangerous, but new research from Texas suggests it may be more detrimental to women than men. The research, which was conducted on mice, showed that alcohol abuse killed brains cells and halted the production of new ones—and the effect was more drastic in females.

Researchers from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston wanted to investigate how long-term alcohol consumption affected the brain. In particular, they wanted to understand how alcohol influenced the development and growth of nerve cells over time.

The team focused on neural stem cells (NSCs), which are associated with brain maintenance and recovery. These cells are located in the subventricular zone of the brain, a region responsible for the production and development of new brain cells.

The researchers used a genetic mapping tool to note changes in NSCs in the brains of adult mice. Doing so showed how the cells traveled through the brain and eventually changed into specialized cells, specifically nerve cells. The researchers fed ethanol to a group of mice, male and female, and compared changes in their NSCs with a group of mice who were not given ethanol. Calorie consumption and nutrients were the same for all the mice.

The study, published in Stem Reports, revealed that chronic alcohol abuse affected the survival of neural stem cells (NSCs). But the differences between the genders were striking. The total number of NSCs was reduced by 94 percent in ethanol-fed females and 74 percent in ethanol-fed males. In other words, alcohol was bad for all mice brains, but worse so for female mice. The researchers also noted that the female mice displayed more severely intoxicated behavior than their male counterparts.

Related: No, Moderate Alcohol Consumption Won't Help You Live Longer

Treating the Damage of Alcohol

Those results tie together past research on alcohol's effect on the brain and how it may affect males and females differently. The findings may lead to more effective alcohol abuse treatments aimed at addressing brain damage caused by chronic alcohol abuse.

The team behind the study was motivated by recent research showing that the brain continues making new cells throughout our lives—a finding that disproved the common belief that our brains stop making cells before adulthood. The new results could eventually lead to better ways to address alcohol-triggered brain damage: If we are not born with a fixed number of these cells, then potential alcohol treatments could be aimed at not just protecting remaining cells but also boosting new cell production. "However, before the new approaches can be developed, we need to understand how alcohol impacts the brain stem cells at different stages in their growth, in different brain regions and in the brains of both males and females," Dr. Ping Wu, neuroscientist and study coauthor, said in a recent statement.

Related: Alcohol and Brain Damage: Moderate Drinking Associated With Cognitive Decline

Chronic alcohol abuse can produce serious long-lasting brain damage, according to the National Institute of Health. Two of the most common brain conditions stemming from too much drinking include Wernicke encephalopathy, which causes mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, and difficulty with muscle coordination; and Korsakoff psychosis, a chronic and debilitating syndrome that causes lasting learning and memory problems.

The biological reason behind the difference in alcohol's effect on the sexes is unclear. More research will be needed to see how closely those results can be repeated in humans. For now, however, the findings stand as a basis for future treatments aimed at treating serious brain damage caused by long-term alcohol abuse.