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After alcohol exposure, threat-detecting brain circuits can’t tell the difference between a threatening and a non-threatening social situation.
Working with 12 healthy participants who drink socially, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study activity in emotion-processing brain regions during alcohol exposure. When participants received a placebo instead of alcohol, they showed greater activity in the amygdala, insula, and parahippocampal gyrus — brain regions involved in fear and avoidance — when shown a picture of a fearful facial expression.
Alcohol, meanwhile, activated striatal areas of the brain that are important components of the reward system, but did not increase brain activity in areas involved in fear.