Alcoholics’ brains need to work harder to feel compassion for others

A new study from the University of Sussex shows that people who drink show more extensive brain dysfunction than they have done in the past. Research shows that the brains of alcoholics need to work harder to try to feel empathy for other people who are in pain.

Paper “Differential brain responses to pain perception in empathic drinkers.” Published in the October 2020 edition of Neuroimage: Clinical Journal. The study involved 71 participants (from France and the United Kingdom) whose brain activity was observed on fMRI scanners while performing a pain perception task. Half of these people were classified as alcoholics and half were not. The drinkers were sober when they were observed.

In the exercise, participants were shown a picture of a joint injury or asked to imagine that the part of the body was themselves or another person, and to describe how much pain they were experiencing with the image. The drinking participants struggled more than their non-drinking counterparts as they tried to accept the perspective of another person who was in pain: they took more time to respond, and the scans revealed that their brains needed to work harder – using more nerves. resources – to assess how intensely another person will feel pain.

Dr.  Rae Laboratory Brain Scanning

Dr. A standard brain image from Rae’s lab (not from work). Credit: Dr. Charlotte Rae

The study also found a wider dysfunction than had been done before; The visual field of the brain, which is associated with the recognition of body parts, showed an unusually high level of activity in drinkers. This was not true of non-drinkers looking at the same images.

When the binge-drinkers were asked to imagine the injured body part in the picture as themselves, their pain was no different from that of their non-drinking colleagues.

Professor Theodora Duka of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex said:

“I have been studying the effects of alcohol for many years. At that time, I gathered a lot of evidence that excessive drinking was associated with impaired brain function in areas that support self-control and attention. Our aim in this study was to test whether drinkers showed less empathy and that their brains reacted differently to non-drinkers when they imagined another person in pain.

Decreased empathy in drinkers can make it easier to drink, as it can interrupt the way you think about the suffering of yourself or others during a drinking session. In this study, we showed that the dysfunction associated with heavy drinking is more widespread than previously known. A region of the brain called the Fusiform Body Zone, which deals with the recognition of body parts, has shown hyperactivity in drinkers in a state of empathy.

Dr.  Rae Laboratory Brain Description

Dr. A standard brain image from Rae’s lab (not from work). Credit: Dr. Charlotte Rae

Dr. from the Faculty of Psychology, University of Sussex. Charlotte Rae said:

“Our results are astonishing,” he said. Our taxes show that those who drink alcohol should work harder to feel empathy for other people who are in pain. Non-alcoholic drinkers should use more resources in terms of higher brain activity. In everyday life, this means that people who drink can struggle to accept the pain of others as easily as those who do not drink alcohol. It’s not that drinkers feel less empathy – they just have to put in more brain resources to do it. However, under certain circumstances, when resources are limited, drinkers may struggle to respond empathetically to others. ”

Bringing a drink is defined as the consumption of more than 60 g of pure alcohol (equivalent to three-quarters of a glass of wine or 2 pints of camp) at least once in the last 30 days. In the UK and France, about 30% of all adults (over the age of 15) who drink alcohol meet this criterion.

Reference: “Differential brain reactions to pain perception during empathic reactions in non-drinkers.”
Charlotte L. Rae, Fabien Gierski, Kathleen W. Smith, Kyriaki Nikolaou, Amy Davies, Hugo D. Critchley, Mickaël Naassil and Theodora Duka, December 22, 2020, Neuroimage: Clinical.
DOI: 10.1016 / j.nicl.2020.102322

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