Brain patterns may help predict relapse risk for alcoholism

May 2, 2013, National Institutes of Health

(Medical Xpress)—Distinct patterns of brain activity are linked to greater rates of relapse among alcohol dependent patients in early recovery, a study has found. The research, supported by the National Institutes of Health, may give clues about which people in recovery from alcoholism are most likely to return to drinking.

"Reducing the high rate of relapse among people treated for alcohol dependence is a fundamental research issue," said Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D., acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of NIH. "Improving our understanding of the that underlie relapse will help us identify susceptible individuals and could inform the development of other prevention strategies."

Using , researchers found that people in recovery from alcoholism who showed hyperactivity in areas of the during a relaxing scenario were eight times as likely to relapse as those showing normal or healthy controls.

The prefrontal brain plays a role in regulating emotion, the ability to suppress urges, and decision-making. Chronic drinking may damage regions involved in self-control, affecting the ability to regulate cravings and resist relapse.

Findings from the study, which was funded by NIAAA, appear online at the JAMA Psychiatry website.

Relapse is common among those trying to overcome and is often triggered by stress and exposure to events or places that the individual associates with alcohol. Studies suggest that most people in recovery from alcoholism relapse at least once before they successfully quit drinking.

Using functional , a technique that allows researchers to measure localized changes in , scientists at Yale University compared the patterns of 45 patients who were about to successfully complete an inpatient treatment program for alcoholism to those of 30 people with no history of alcoholism. While undergoing brain scans, participants were asked to imagine relaxing situations such as sunning on a beach, as well as recent stressful situations. The patients in recovery were then followed for 90 days after leaving treatment to determine how many had returned to drinking.

The investigators found that individuals in recovery who showed patterns of heightened activity in the prefrontal region during the relaxing situation were much more likely to experience cravings for alcohol and subsequent relapse. These patterns of craving-related activity increased the likelihood of early relapse by 8.5 times and relapse to heavy drinking by 8.7 times. Abnormally low activity during the stressful scenario was also linked to greater number of days drinking after relapse.

Among the alcohol-dependent patients in this study, 30 percent had relapsed two weeks after leaving treatment, 46 percent had relapsed at the end of one month, and 71 percent had returned to drinking at the final three-month follow-up.

"The patterns of brain activity we observed may one day serve as a neural marker that could help clinicians identify alcohol-dependent patients in recovery who are most at risk of relapse," said Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., the study's senior author, who is Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and Professor in the Child Study Center and of Neurobiology at Yale University.

"Our findings may also have implications for the use of medications and behavioral treatments that restore prefrontal function, as they could potentially benefit people at high risk of relapse," Dr. Sinha said.

Explore further: Structural and functional abnormalities found in brains of relapsed alcohol-dependent patients

More information: Seo, D. et al. Disrupted ventromedial prefrontal function, alcohol craving, and subsequent relapse risk. JAMA Psychiatry, 2013 May 1.

Related Stories

Structural and functional abnormalities found in brains of relapsed alcohol-dependent patients

September 20, 2012
Scientists at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin have succeeded in coming closer to determining the risk of relapse in detoxified alcohol-dependent patients. Using an imaging process (magnetic resonance tomography) ...

Behavioral test shows promise in predicting future problems with alcohol

August 27, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—By administering a simple behavioral test, Yale researchers were able to predict which mice would later exhibit alcoholism-related behaviors such as the inability to stop seeking alcohol and a tendency ...

Relapse or recovery? Neuroimaging predicts course of substance addiction treatment

October 14, 2012
An Indiana University study has provided preliminary evidence that by measuring brain activity through the use of neuroimaging, researchers can predict who is likely to have an easier time getting off drugs and alcohol, and ...

For depression, relapsers go to the front of the brain

August 22, 2011
Depression is increasingly recognized as an illness that strikes repeatedly over the lifespan, creating cycles of relapse and recovery. This sobering knowledge has prompted researchers to search for markers of relapse risk ...

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.