Background: Alcoholic brain damage has been demonstrated in numerous studies using neuropathology and brain imaging techniques. However, gender differences were addressed only in a few studies. Recent research has shown that development, course, and consequences of alcohol dependence may differ between female and male patients. Our investigation was built upon earlier research where we hypothesized that women develop alcoholic brain damage more readily than men do. To further compare the impact of alcohol dependence between men and women, we examined brain atrophy in female and male alcoholics by means of computed tomography (CT).
Methods: The study group consisted of a total of 158 subjects (76 women: 42 patients, 34 healthy controls; 82 age-matched men: 34 patients, 48 healthy controls). All patients had a DSM-IV and ICD-10 diagnosis of alcohol dependence. CT with digital volumetry was performed twice in patients (at the beginning and end of the 6-week inpatient treatment program) and once in controls.
Results: Patients of both genders had consumed alcohol very heavily. Although the average alcohol consumption in the year before the study was significantly lower in female alcoholics, this gender difference disappeared when controlled for weight. However, women had a significantly shorter duration of alcohol dependence. Despite this fact, both genders developed brain atrophy to a comparable extent. Brain atrophy was reversible in part after 6 weeks of treatment; it did not reach the level in the control groups.
Conclusions: Gender-specific differences in the onset of alcohol dependence were confirmed. This is in line with the telescoping effect, where a later onset and a more rapid development of dependence in women were described. Under the assumption of a gradual development of consequential organ damage, brain atrophy seems to develop faster in women. As shown in other organs (i.e., heart, muscle, liver), this may confirm a higher vulnerability to alcohol among women.