Binge-drinkers' brains work harder to feel empathy – study finds

Binge-drinkers’ brains have to work harder to feel empathy for other people in pain, study shows

  • Researchers studied the MRI brain patters of people who regularly binge-drink 
  • They put binge-drinkers and non-binge-drinkers through a pain perception test
  • This involved pictures of injuries and then estimating the possible pain levels
  • People who binge-drink found it harder to ‘feel’ the pain someone else might be experiencing when compared to those who don’t regularly binge-drink

People who go out binge-drinking have to work their brains harder than normal in order to feel empathy for others in pain, according to a new study.  

Researchers from the University of Sussex observed the brain functions of 71 volunteers from the UK and France while they undertook a pain perception task. 

Half of these people were classified as binge-drinkers – that is consuming the equivalent of 2 and a half pints of lager one in 30 days – and half were not. 

People who binge-drink regularly showed greater signs of dysfunction in the area of their brains linked to empathy than those who don’t regularly drink alcohol. 

Binge-drinkers struggled more than those that don’t binge-drink when trying to ‘adopt the perspective of another person experiencing pain’, the authors said. 

People who go out binge-drinking have to work their brains harder than normal in order to feel empathy for others in pain, according to a new study. Stock image

Volunteers were shown a range of images (pictured) showing painful injuries to limbs and asked to either imagine it was happening to them or someone else

In the task participants were shown an image of a limb being injured, and had to image the body part was either theirs or that of another person.

BINGE-DRINKING: AT LEAST 2.1OZ OF PURE ALCOHOL A MONTH

Binge-drinking has a specific definition – it isn’t just going out for a heavy night.

According to researchers it is defined as consuming more than 2.1oz (60g) of pure alcohol on at least on occasion in the past 30 days.

That is the equivalent to about three quarters of a bottle of wine, or 2½ pints of lager at least once a month.

About 30 per cent of all adults over 15 years of age who drink alcohol in UK and France meet the criteria for ‘binge-drinker’. 

Volunteers then had to state how much pain they thought was associated with the injury shown in the image. 

‘[Bing-drinkers] took more time to respond and the scans revealed that their brains had to work harder – to use more neural resources – to appreciate how intensely another person would feel pain,’ the team wrote. 

The study also revealed a more widespread dysfunction in the brain of binge-drinkers related to empathy than previously realised.

A visual area of the brain, which is involved in recognising body parts, showed unusually high levels of activation in the binge-drinkers. 

This was not true in the non-binge drinkers who looked at the same images. 

When the binge-drinkers were asked to imagine the injured body part in the picture as their own, their pain estimate was not different from that of their non-binge drinking counterparts.

The difference came when they tried to imagine the limb belonged to another. 

Professor Theodora Duka from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex has been studying the effects of excessive alcohol consumption for years.

Binge-drinking is defined as consuming more than 2.1oz (60g) of pure alcohol – equivalent to about three quarters of one bottle of wine, or 2½ pints of lager – on at least one occasion in the past 30 days, she said.

About 30 per cent of all adults over 15 years of age who drink alcohol in UK and France meet the criteria for ‘binge-drinker’. 

‘I have built up a strong body of evidence about the widespread way in which binge-drinking is associated with brain dysfunction in areas supporting self-control and attention,’ she explained. 

The goal of this study was to find out whether binge-drinkers showed less empathy when compared to non-binge drinkers – and they found it to be true. 

‘Reduced empathy in binge drinkers may facilitate drinking as it can blunt the perception of suffering of self or others during a drinking session,’ said Duka.

‘A region of the brain called the Fusiform Body Area associated with recognition of body parts showed hyperactivity in binge-drinkers in a situation in which feelings of empathy are experienced.’

People who binge-drink regularly showed signs of dysfunction in the area of their brains linked to empathy than those who don’t regularly drink alcohol. Stock image 

Dr Charlotte Rae from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex said the results were ‘surprising’. 

‘Our data show that binge-drinkers need to work harder to feel empathy for other people in pain,’ said Rae, adding ‘they need to use more resources in terms of higher brain activity than non-binge drinkers.’ 

This means that in everyday life people who binge-drink may struggle to perceive the pain of others as easily as people who don’t drink to excess.

‘It’s not that binge drinkers feel less empathy – it’s just that they have to put more brain resource into being able to do so,’ Rae explained.

‘However, under certain circumstances when resources become limited, binge drinkers may struggle to engage in an empathic response to others.’  

The findings have been published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical. 

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