By Merritt McKinney
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who abuse alcohol, as well as who are exposed to it in the womb, may have difficulty detecting emotions in others' voices, according to a report.
When people listen, they do more than just hear and interpret the words that others say. They also take into account the way a speaker's voice sounds, including its tone, pitch, rhythm and stresses. Taken together, these qualities make up the emotional message of a voice.
Knowing for sure that a person is not angry, and is not just saying so, involves interpreting the nuances of a person's voice. The ability to make sense of the emotional content of a voice is called affective prosodic comprehension (APC).
Alcohol abuse and exposure to alcohol in the womb are both known to take a physical toll, but study findings published in the March issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggest that such exposure to alcohol may also affect the ability to interpret emotions.
Dr. Marilee Monnot and colleagues at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City found that alcoholics who had been sober for at least 3 weeks and adults whose mothers were believed to have consumed alcohol during pregnancy had significant deficits in the ability to interpret emotions in voices.
The 41 adults in the control group--people who did not have a history of alcoholism or fetal alcohol exposure--were able to identify emotions correctly 93% of the time, but alcoholics and people who had been exposed to alcohol before birth identified emotions correctly 79% and 62% of the time, respectively.
The researchers report that fetal exposure to alcohol, as well as early abuse appeared to have the most destructive effect on the ability to identify emotions in voices.
``Individuals with poor ability to accurately detect emotion in the voice of a communication partner will find it difficult to manage social demands,'' including both personal and work-related relationships, Monnot and her colleagues write.
``Individuals who acquire such a deficit early in life may never develop the requisite communication, social and occupational skills necessary for success,'' they add.
``This study indicates that early exposure to alcohol, especially through the mechanism of prenatal exposure and early-onset alcohol abuse, causes significant deficits in APC that are likely to impair social competency,'' the authors conclude.
According to another expert, in the case of alcoholics it is hard to know whether the poor ability to detect emotions in voices stems from alcohol abuse or led to it.
``With adult alcoholics, it's important to remember the 'chicken-or-egg' debate,'' Dr. Marlene Oscar-Berman, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a press release issued by the journal.
``You don't know which came first. You don't know if they have social or emotional problems because of their alcoholism, or if they had these problems ahead of time, which then contributed to their drinking,'' she said.
SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2001;25:362-369.