Study explores sex differences in alcohol use disorder

by John Keenan, UNMC strategic communications | October 27, 2021

Image with caption: Jennifer Blackford, PhD

Jennifer Blackford, PhD

Jennifer Blackford, PhD, director of research at MMI, recently received a $2 million grant to determine whether a particular brain network drives differences between men and women in cases of alcohol use disorders.

The study is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"In terms of alcohol use disorder, 90% of what we know comes from men," Dr. Blackford said. "Historically, the major studies on alcohol use disorder were in men because alcohol use disorder was much more common in men. But in the past 10-15 years, rates of alcohol use disorder have skyrocketed in women. The effects of alcohol on women’s bodies are more severe than men’s bodies -- you see higher rates of cancer and cardiac problems. Alcohol is much more toxic for women, and now women are drinking at much high rates."

The impetus for the new study was earlier research conducted by Dr. Blackford and a colleague at Vanderbilt University on the role of alcohol in anxiety. That research focused on an area of the brain known as the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST), a region critically involved in stress, anxiety and alcohol use. And the earlier study found significant differences in women compared to men.

Dr. Blackford is teaming with co-investigator Alena Balasanova, MD, assistant professor in the UNMC Department of Psychiatry, for the current study.

The goal of the new study is to explicitly test if this "anxiety network" in the BNST looks different in men’s brains and women’s as they are in a phase Dr. Blackford calls "early abstinence" -- the first six months of sobriety.

"Feeling anxious is one of the major causes of relapse," Dr. Blackford said. "People often use alcohol to ‘treat’ anxiety, so understanding whether alcohol impacts the BNST differently in women versus men could help to develop new treatments."

The overall goal, she said, is to discover any concrete neurobiological differences in men and women, which could then lead to future studies on the causes of relapse and, eventually, more effective sex-specific treatments for alcohol use disorder.

The study will feature four groups of 40 - men and women, social drinkers and people with an alcohol use disorder who are in early abstinence. The researchers will use a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging and diffusion tensor imaging to examine the BNST anxiety network, relative to healthy controls.

"This study will fill a critical knowledge gap in whether there are identifiable neurobiological differences between men and women in early abstinence from an alcohol use disorder," Dr. Blackford said.

Dr. Blackford’s team will partner with Nebraska Medicine’s intensive outpatient program and a local treatment facility during the five-year study.

Comments
Havalynn Russell
October 27, 2021 at 12:05 PM

This is really interesting and the findings thus far are fascinating! It's exciting to know that our outpatient program is a part of such innovative research.

Kenneth Zoucha
October 27, 2021 at 7:47 AM

We are very lucky to be able to have such talented folks come to Nebraska and involve the good people of Nebraska in the facilitation of knowledge that will improve the care of those with substance use disorders. Thanks Dr. Blackford!