Gender differences in alcohol’s effects on the brain for adolescents in alcohol recovery

Adolescent alcohol use and alcohol use disorders among adolescent constitute serious problems. By grade 12, nearly 60 percent of adolescents have been drunk, and studies suggest that approximately 6 percent of adolescents have an alcohol use disorder. In adulthood, males typically drink more frequently than females. However, during adolescence, females drink at rates equivalent to those of males. Among adults, alcohol dependent women seem to be more susceptible to brain damage due to alcohol use. Animal studies suggest that the adolescent brain is more susceptible to brain damage due to alcohol use. Thus, alcohol use may affect male and female adolescent brains differently, and females may be more susceptible to brain damage from alcohol use in alcohol recovery. Researchers from the University of California at San Diego set out to determine how alcohol use affects brain functioning in male and female adolescents (Caldwell et. al., 2005).

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have revealed that adults with alcohol use disorders show different brain activation patterns. Specially, they show a diminished blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) response in certain brain regions during spatial working memory tests. The current studied examined BOLD responses of male and female adolescents with and without alcohol use disorders during a spatial working memory task.

The researchers recruited 7 female and 11 male adolescents with alcohol use disorders as well as 9 female and 12 male control adolescents without alcohol use disorders. All participants performed spatial working memory and vigilance tasks during fMRI scans.

The results showed that gender and presence of alcohol use disorder (and the interaction of the two) were significantly associated with different brain activation patterns during fMRI scans. Female and male adolescents with alcohol use disorders showed different brain responses from each other and from controls in the superior frontal superior temporal, cingulate, and fusiform regions. Further, female adolescents with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) showed a greater difference from normal brain activation patterns.

“Female adolescents with AUDs showed a greater departure from normal activation patterns than AUD males, potentially indicating a greater female vulnerability to alcohol neurotoxicity,” the authors reported. “AUD females showed a greater brain response than males with AUDs and, importantly, compared with female controls in the temporal areas, possibly to compensate for the reduced frontal and cingulate activation. In addition, differences in alcohol metabolism may contribute to female vulnerability.”

This study suggests that females who begin drinking in adolescence and continue to drink heavily may be at greater risk for brain damage as well as behavioral problems later in life, compared to male adolescents. However, heavy drinking is potentially damaging and dangerous for both male and female adolescents. Any adolescent with an alcohol use disorder should receive alcohol treatment to reduce the risk of problems later in life.


Caldwell LC, Schweinsburg AD, Nagel BJ, Barlett VC, Brown SA, Tapert SF. Gender and adolescent alcohol use disorders on BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) response to spatial working memory. Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2005; 40(3): 194-200.