Female Alcohol Use Disorders are on the rise—and we don’t know how to treat them

Over the past ten years, alcohol use disorders (AUDs) have increased significantly—particularly among females. Although AUDs are predominantly male, the prognosis is much worse for females. They are much more susceptible to the negative consequences of drinking, such as liver disease and breast cancer.

This rapid increase brought forth an inconvenient truth.

Almost all of the studies that tested the safety of drug treatment for AUDs were conducted primarily on males. So, how are we supposed to treat these females with drugs that are not proven to be effective​ or​ safe? And how on earth do we not have that data?

Until 2016, almost all biomedical research was conducted mostly on male mice. Researchers use mice as models for humans, because their mammalian brain are similar to ours. A long time ago, however, scientists concluded that female mice were too hormonal to produce clean data. They have a 5 day cycle—like a mini human menstrual cycle—which results in hormonal variations that influence their reactions in various behavioral tests.

These hormonal fluctuations, however, are not limited to females.

Recent findings proved that when male mice are housed in groups with other males —which they are for almost all studies—their testosterone levels sky-rocket. These variable hormone levels also influence behavior, but have never been regarded as an issue or blockade to reliable data.

Have sexist biases have gotten in the way of objective science? Scientists completely disregarded females because they were hyper-hormonal and messy, without giving male hormones a second thought.

Recognizing this issue, the NIH issued a mandate in 2016, stating that they will only fund preclinical studies if they include female subjects.

This summer, I am working on a project that examines sex differences on the effect of adolescent binge-drinking. In order to develop an effective pharmacological treatment for female AUDs, we must first understand the neurobiology of their addiction.

There are years of research to catch up on, but we are headed in the right direction. Hopefully, we gain some insight into the nature of female AUDs, and begin the process of safely treating them.