Researchers in Germany used computed tomography to examine alcohol's effects on the brains of 158 alcoholic men and women.
Their findings support, and build on, former beliefs that gender may play a role in the impact of alcohol: suggesting that alcohol damages women's brains more readily than men.
Women typically start to drink later in life, consume less per occasion and are, in general, less likely to develop alcohol dependence.
"But there is, in fact, evidence for a faster progression of the developmental events leading to dependence among female alcoholics and an earlier onset of adverse consequences of alcoholism," says lead researcher Karl Mann, at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
For the study, researchers examined 158 subjects: 76 women (42 patients, 34 healthy controls), and 82 age-matched men (34 patients, 48 healthy controls).
CT scans were performed twice among the patients - at the beginning and end of their six-week programme - and once among the controls.
Results confirm gender-specific differences in the onset of alcohol dependence, report the researchers, also suggesing that brain atrophy [wasting away] seems to develop faster in women.
"We confirmed greater brain atrophy in alcoholic women and men compared to healthy controls," said Mann. "Furthermore, the women developed equal brain-volume reductions as the men after a significantly shorter period of alcohol dependence than the men."
Their findings support previous studies that have found other gender-related consequences of alcohol, such as cognitive deficits, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, myopathy of skeletal muscle, and alcoholic liver disease: all of which occur earlier in women than in men despite a significantly shorter exposure to alcohol.
The higher depression index in alcoholic women than men was also of interest, say the researchers, suggesting that this could serve as a "useful trigger" to family members that something is wrong' with the affected individual.
Full findings are published in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.