Liam Davenport

September 26, 2016

VIENNA — Drinking alcohol improves subjective feelings of sociability by making people see happy faces faster and drawing them to happy social situations, new research suggests.

The data were presented here at the 29th European Congress of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress and simultaneously published online September 19 in Psychopharmacology. The investigators also showed that the subjective social effects of alcohol were greater in people who were more socially inhibited and in women.

Interestingly, although explicit sexual imagery was experienced as being more pleasant following alcohol consumption, it was not more likely to be perceived as arousing.

"We found that drinking a glass of beer helps people see happy faces faster and enhances concern for positive emotional situations," said lead investigator Matthias Liechti, MD, Department of Biomedicine, University Hospital Basel, Switzerland.

"Alcohol also facilitates the viewing of sexual images, consistent with disinhibition, but it does not actually enhance sexual arousal. These effects of alcohol on social cognition likely enhance sociability," he added.

Although it has been shown that alcohol enhances social interactions, the effect of alcohol on social cognition and its impact on sexual arousal and desire have not been well studied.

To investigate, the researchers randomly allocated 60 healthy social drinkers (mean age, 24 years) to consume either alcoholic beer or nonalcoholic beer. For those who drank alcoholic beer, the target blood alcohol concentration was 0.4 g/L. Half of the participants were women, and all were white.

The study had a double-blind, random-order, cross-over design. Participants completed the dynamic Face Emotion Recognition Task, the Multifaceted Empathy Test, and the Sexual Arousal Task, as well as a series of visual analogue scales (VAS) on subjective effects. Plasma levels of oxytocin, which is believed to mediate aspects of social cognition and is involved in bonding, were also measured.

The results showed that alcohol was associated with significant increases in VAS ratings of "any effect" of alcohol and with ratings of feeling stimulated, happy, talkative, open, and wanting to be with others. Alcohol was also associated with a significant decrease in the VAS rating of wanting to be alone.

These effects took place between 30 minutes and 90 minutes after the administration of alcoholic or nonalcoholic beer. The effect of alcohol on subjective VAS ratings was significantly greater in women than in men (P < .01).

Maximal responses to alcoholic beer were significantly correlated with trait inhibition ratings for "any effect" (P < .01) and feeling open (P < .001), talkative (P < .05), stimulated (P < .05), and happy (P < .05), such that individuals who were more inhibited experienced a greater subjective effect with alcohol. There was a trend for significantly greater inhibition for women than men (P = .056).

Consumption of alcoholic beer was also associated with significantly shorter recognition times for happy faces than consumption of nonalcoholic beer (P < .001), but there was no difference for nonhappy faces. Alcohol also significantly increased explicit emotional empathy ratings for positive stimuli (P < .05), but had no effect on all or negative stimuli.

Following consumption of nonalcoholic beer, pictures of explicit sexual content were rated as less pleasant than neutral images, an effect that was not seen following consumption of alcoholic beer. Explicit sexual pictures were more likely to be rated as pleasant after consuming alcoholic beer (P < .001), particularly by women (P = .04). However, explicit sexual pictures were considered less arousing than implicit sexual pictures following consumption of both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beer.

Interestingly, plasma oxytocin levels did not differ following alcoholic or nonalcoholic beer consumption, at 7.5 ± 3.8 pg/mL and 7.7 ± 4.2 pg/mL, respectively (P = .7), and did not differ between the sexes.

Social Lubricant

Commenting on the findings, Wim van den Brink, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and addiction at the Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and past chair of the ECNP Scientific Program Committee, noted that the study confirms the "conventional wisdom that alcohol is a social lubricant. Moderate use of alcohol makes people happier, more social, and less inhibited when it comes to sexual engagement," he said.

"The sex differences in the findings can either be explained by differences in blood alcohol concentration between males and females with the same alcohol intake, by differences in tolerance due to differences in previous levels of alcohol consumption, or by sociocultural factors.

"It should also be recognized that different effects of alcohol can be seen according to whether your blood alcohol is increasing or decreasing and, of course, how much alcohol you have taken," he concluded.

The research was funded by the University Hospital Basel. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

29th European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) Congress. Abstract P.6.b.008. Presented September 20, 2016.

Psychopharmacology. Published online September 19, 2016. Abstract


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