University of Georgia students may not be consciously calculating the cost-benefits of consuming alcohol, but their brains could already being doing this for them.
Associate professor of psychology James MacKillop is studying how the brain makes decisions about drinking alcohol, as well as how it weighs the pros and cons of drinking.
The study was tested through a bar laboratory alcohol procedure in order to assess how the cost of alcohol affected the amount people consumed.
MacKillop said his lab is focused on understanding drinking and alcohol misuse by studying it live in the lab or using a combination of brain imagining.
“In our study we measure the perceived pros of drinking by how much a person chooses to drink,” MacKillop said. “We measured the cons by how much the cost of drinking suppressed their drinking.”
For the experiment, MacKillop said he focused on 24 heavy male drinkers between the ages of 21 and 31.
“We were able to identify regions in the brain that are using more oxygen during different kinds of choices,” he said. “By identifying these regions, we were able to infer that they required more activity.”
MacKillop said the result showed a variety of different brain activity.
“When people were no longer willing to drink because the price was too high, we saw they had high activity in the anterior insula,” MacKillop said. “So it seemed like the insula was very important for characterizing how much person felt like the cost outweighed the benefits.”
According to PubMed, the anterior insula plays a role in decision making and sudden insight.
“Finding that the anterior insula was high in activity when cost of drinking outweighed the benefits could mean that this region of the brain is the intersection where our rational and irrational systems work together,” MacKillop said.
But MacKillop said when people were not affected by cost, there were different patterns in the brain.
“There was selectively greater activity in an area in the brain called the cuneus, which has been associated with the value of possessions,” he said. “And there was high activity in the posterior cingulate.”
UGA Police Chief Jimmy Williamson said he encounters a number of students at UGA who have consumed alcohol daily.
“Most students are in a position aren’t aware of some of the risk of consuming since most people aren’t talking about whether you should or you shouldn’t drink,” Williamson said. “There are no really good examples of responsible consumption which cause many students to go down the path of heavy drinking.”
According to UGAPD’s crime statistics 406 people were arrested for alcohol-related instances in 2012. And in 2013, 339 people were arrested for alcohol-related instances.
“It may be DUI or underage drinking or public drunkeness," Williamson said. "Many of our students are capable of purchasing alcohol easily at the current pricing in the area.”
MacKillop said people think about alcohol use disorders as a disorder of decision making.
“In the future, we are hoping that we can use this experiment and methodology to understand what types of neural activity is different with individuals with alcohol-use disorders relative to healthy drinkers,” he said.