The image above, from Scientific American, illustrates fMRI findings of brain activity differences over social rejectoin.

Some new research indicates that may be true even if the drinkers say they don’t feel the social rejection more than others.

The new research studied brain responses, via fMRI, and found increased response in one area of the brain, and decreased response in another, versus the control group:

When they looked at the results, they found that both groups, the alcohol dependent and the controls, felt the same amount of social exclusion during the exclusion part of the game. But their fMRI responses showed some major differences. All participants saw increases in activity in the cingulate cortex and ventral prefrontal cortex during social exclusion. But the alcohol dependent patients showed less ventral prefrontal cortex activity than controls, and also showed additional increased activity in the insula.

Two caveats should apply. One is the small size of the study, in terms of numbers observed, and the other is that fMRIs aren’t anywhere near a perfect representation of human mental activity.

That said, this does have food for thought.

One is that since the alcoholic drinkers were actually abstinent, in the third week of recovery … is this a problem not caused by too much alcohol, but the cause of alcoholic drinking? Stereotypes aside, are shyness and related issues a “driver”?

But, what if part of this is alcohol caused? Maybe too many years of too much drinking make alcoholics overly sensitive?

Two, related to the above, if a stereotypical alcoholic drinker says he or she is responding to social rejection like a nondrinker, but at a subconscious level, isn’t, we have some strong evidence for the “social lubrication” effects of alcohol, just how much they can work at the conscious level, but not below that, it would seem.

The authors note some of these chicken-and-egg issues:

Alcoholics can have many problems with social exclusion. This is partially due to the severe stigma that accompanies alcoholism, but it’s also due to the difficulties that being an alcoholic can produce on social interaction. Regardless, being an alcoholic can result in ostracism and a breaking down of social support networks, and that can make recovery, especially in times of stress, that much more difficult.

So, read the full story.