Even the most experienced counselors have difficultly spotting a recovering alcoholic in danger of relapse. Brain imaging scans might do a better job according to a study last year by researchers at Yale University.
They suggested that alcoholics with abnormal activity in areas of the brain that control emotions and desires (reward) are eight times more likely to relapse and drink heavily than alcoholics with more normal patterns of activity or healthy individuals (1)
“These areas in the prefrontal cortex are involved in regulating emotion and in controlling responses to reward,” said Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and professor in the Child Study Center and of Department of Neurobiology. “They are damaged by high levels of alcohol and stress and just do not function well.”
Or both perhaps, i.e. chronic alcohol use impacting on already impaired emotional regulation networks in the brain.
This graphic highlights areas of the brain where Yale researchers found significant differences in responses to stress and relaxation-inducing stimuli between alcoholics and healthy controls. Alcoholics who exhibited such patterns of activity during fMRI scans were much more likely to relapse than alcoholics that more closely resembled control subjects.
Areas of the brain governing emotional regulation such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which suggests chronic difficulties in emotional dysregulation, which potentiates the reward network, lying adjacent, and promotes higher relapse – click image for study.
Ironically, the damage shows up on fMRI scans when alcoholics imagine being in their own most relaxing scenarios, like sitting at the beach listening to the waves, or taking a bubble bath. In non-alcoholics, these brain regions regulating emotion show markedly reduced activity during relaxing imagery, as anticipated. However, in alcoholics most likely to relapse, those brain regions remain hyperactive. On the other hand, when recovering alcoholics imagine their own recent stressful events, these control regions of the brain show little change, while in non-alcoholics, they show marked activation in response to stress. Such disrupted responses in areas of the brain governing emotions and reward lead to high cravings in the recovering alcoholic and an increased likelihood of subsequent relapse.
These brain scans in the future might serve as a diagnostic test to help professionals identify those most at risk of relapsing and suggest specific interventions to normalize brain function and prevent high rates of alcohol relapse, Sinha said.
“The findings show the prefrontal region is important for maintaining recovery for alcoholism,” Sinha said.
This is in accord with much of our writing in this blog – alcoholics, in recovery or otherwise, appear to have profound difficulties in regulating stress and emotion, as if the hyperactivity in the ventromedial pefrontal cortex, seen here, is indicative of a brain that never emotionally shuts off, is always on the go (whether this is the consequence of allostasis, the continual readjustment of the brain to stress needs to be further explored) and is primed to relapse effectively via a “fight of flight mechanism, or a distress based impulsivity.
Dongju Seo; R Todd Constable; Kwang-Ik Hong; Cheryl Lacadie; Keri Tuit; Rajita Sinha
Disrupted ventromedial prefrontal function, alcohol craving, and subsequent relapse risk.
JAMA psychiatry (Chicago, Ill.) 2013;70(7):727-39.