Each day sober slowly helps alcoholics' brains recover

3d high resolution render of a human brain inside a profile view human
3d high resolution render of a human brain inside a profile view human
  • The brains of recovering alcoholics take a long time to normalise
  • Brain imaging showed a disruption in the brain network associated with decision-making
  • The severity of disruption, however, diminished the longer study participants abstained from alcohol

A new brain scan study shows why the "one day at a time" approach works for recovering alcoholics.

"For people with AUD [alcohol use disorder], the brain takes a long time to normalise, and each day is going to be a struggle," explained senior study author Rajita Sinha, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Yale University's Child Study Center. "For these people, it really is 'one day at a time'."

For the study, Sinha's team looked at people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder who had imaging scans of their brains taken one day to two weeks after their last drink.

Disruption between brain regions

The more recently they'd had their last drink, the greater the disruption in activity between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and striatum, a brain network associated with decision-making.

The more severe the disruption to this network, the more likely it was that study participants would resume heavy drinking and put their treatment and recovery at risk, according to the study published online on 28 August in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The good news is that the severity of disruption between these brain regions diminished the longer that study participants abstained from alcohol, the researchers found.

The study shows that imaging studies can help identify patients at greatest risk for relapse and highlights how crucial extensive treatment is for people in their early days of sobriety, Sinha noted.

Blood pressure medication may help

"When people are struggling, it is not enough for them to say, 'OK, I didn't drink today, so I'm good now,'" Sinha said in a university news release. "It doesn't work that way."

The findings also suggest it may be possible to develop medications to help people with the most severe brain disruptions during their early days of alcohol treatment.

The researchers said they are investigating whether high blood pressure medications can help lower these brain disruptions and improve patients' chances of long-term abstinence.

Image credit: Unsplash

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