Alcohol affects social cue perception

By Staff Writer • Published: November 25th, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Don’t let your holiday drinking affect your small talk at holiday parties this season. According to researchers at the University of Illinois’ Chicago College of Medicine, alcohol intoxication reduces the communication in your brain between the amygdala (uh-mig-duh-luh) and the prefrontal cortex. These two areas work together to interpret and respond to social cues.

The study included heavy social drinkers with an average age of 23 who reported an average of almost eight binge drinking episodes a month. In one sitting, it takes as many as five of more drinks for men and four or more for women to constitute as binge drinking.

Participants in the study were either given a beverage with a high dose of 16 percent alcohol or a placebo and then underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan. While the scan was being done, three photos of faces appeared on a screen: either angry, happy, fearful or neutral. Participants were asked to match the emotion shown on the top row to one of the photos on the second row.

The study found that acute alcohol intoxication hindered the participants’ ability to analyze and appropriately respond to the facial expressions of the photos. This means that after just one drink our ability to decipher our peer’s face is affected … and it only worsens with binge drinking.

In addition, the study discovered that participants who consumed an alcoholic drink had a reduced reaction to the threat signals from the photos of angry or fearful faces. Therefore, emotional cues that signal threat weren’t being processed correctly due to the amygdala not responding normally.

So if you want to keep your brain and your social reflexes sharp, be sure to drink alcohol in moderation.