Study Identifies Brain Areas Involved in Alcohol Addiction Relapse
While some research has shown that there are certain alcohol-related cues that initiate a process in the brain that can trigger a relapse, there has not been clarity in determining what specific brain areas are involved. Information about how the brain behaves when it is most vulnerable to relapsing into alcohol addiction could provide helpful information for targeting patients most at risk.
A recent study appearing in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry provides new information about what happens in the brain when an alcohol addict relapses. The findings may eventually help identify those patients most at risk for relapse.
The researchers from Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin have shown that it may be possible to measure the risk of relapse among those who are detoxified and alcohol-dependent. The team used magnetic resonance tomography to identify abnormalities present in certain brain regions of relapsed alcohol-addicted individuals.
The study, led by Professor Andreas Heinz, director of the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, used the imaging to examine 46 detoxified alcohol-dependent individuals and compared them with imaging results from a control group.
The researchers used the structural imaging to identify and measure properties of substance in the brain, in addition to the examination of signals in the brain reacting to stimuli associated with alcohol. The team then followed up with the patients three months later to determine whether they had experienced a relapse.
The follow-up identified 30 patients who had relapsed and 16 who remained abstinent.
The relapse patients had specific differences in the brain scans obtained during the study. Those who had relapsed were shown to have an increased reduction in gray matter in certain areas of the forebrain. The area of the brain with the differences measured is associated with regulating behaviors and emotions.
The analysis also showed that there was a difference exhibited in the patients' responses to alcohol-associated stimuli. Those who would eventually relapse experienced activation in different areas of the brain when exposed to alcohol-associated stimuli when compared with those who would remain abstinent.
The finding provides evidence that there are areas of the brain that are active in relapse patients that are connected with drawing attention to certain types of stimuli.
In those who remained abstinent, the activation occurred in areas of the brain that are known to be central to processing stimuli that induce aversion. The researchers explain that the activity could be a natural warning system for certain stimuli that the brain associates with alcohol.