A recent study found evidence that heavy drinking is linked to a diminished brain response to other people’s pain, suggesting that binge drinkers may have a harder time processing empathy. The findings were published in NeuroImage: Clinical.
Previous studies have suggested that heavy drinking among young adults is associated with a reduced ability to read emotions and decreased empathy. However, study authors Charlotte L. Rae and associates remark that no study has examined brain responses to empathy, comparing young binge drinkers to non-binge drinkers.
“Our aim here,” Rae and her team say, “was to extend the literature on maladaptive empathy in binge drinkers by investigating its neural underpinnings in healthy young adult social drinkers who pursue a pattern of binge drinking.”
The researchers investigated data from a study involving 71 young adults recruited from the UK and France. Subjects were an average of 20 years old and roughly half of them were binge drinkers. All participants completed questionnaires measuring the severity of their alcohol consumption and their impulsivity, and then took part in an empathy task while their brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
During the empathy task, participants were shown a series of images that either showed a painful scene depicting a body part being injured or a neutral scene depicting a body part away from harm. Before viewing each image, participants were instructed to adopt one of two perspectives: to imagine that the given scene was happening to them or to imagine that it was happening to someone else.
The young adults were asked to indicate with a button press whether a presented image represented a painful or a non-painful event while their reaction times were recorded. Participants additionally rated the pain intensity of each image.
The researchers found that the group prone to binge drinking showed greater activation in the fusiform gyrus while imagining that a painful scene was happening to someone else.
As the researchers relate, the fusiform gyrus is an area of the brain that is typically activated when experiencing pain or when witnessing another person experiencing pain. That this area was more activated in binge drinkers, the authors say, may suggest that greater energy was required for them to process others’ pain, indicating a “compensatory mechanism” for an impairment in emotional processing.
Binge drinkers also responded more slowly to the pain events than non-binge drinkers, regardless of whether they imagined the pain was happening to themselves or to another person. As Rae and colleagues infer, this suggests that heavy drinkers process pain differently in general. However, the difference between the two groups was largest when the painful event was imagined happening to another person, suggesting again that this empathy response was demanding more of binge drinkers, what the researchers call, “a specific failure in empathy.”
The researchers point out that their findings suggest that empathy training could be a promising avenue to discourage binge drinking, through the strengthening of perceptions of empathy and encouragement of self-control during binges.
“It is of particular interest to the current study that the recent findings by Laghi and colleagues (Laghi et al., 2019) show that high ratings of empathic concerns are negative predictors of binge drinking in adolescents,” the authors note. “Thus, the targetted strengthening of empathic skills could be proved to be beneficial as a prevention strategy for binge drinking and other expression of alcohol abuse.”
One limitation was that the study did not include subjective ratings of empathy.
The study, “Differential brain responses for perception of pain during empathic response in binge drinkers compared to non-binge drinkers”, was authored by Charlotte L. Rae, Fabien Gierski, Kathleen W. Smith, Kyriaki Nikolaou, Amy Davies, Hugo D. Critchley, Mickaël Naassila, and Theodora Duka.