With alcohol claiming the lives of 140,000 people in America each year and an estimated $249 billion loss for the economy, research efforts to better understand and address the problem are reaching innovative levels. Alcohol addiction is a chronic disease, affecting millions of families across the US, and causing a huge strain of people’s lives. While there are a wide range of successful clinical substance abuse treatment options available, there is significant interest in better understanding what causes addiction in the first place, what makes certain individuals more susceptible to the disease, and how this can inform recovery treatment processes.
Heavy Drinking And Lower Functional Connectivity
A recent study by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that individuals who are at increased risk of heavy alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems could have lower functional connectivity. This refers to the signaling patterns between different areas in the brain, particularly in brain regions that are responsible for processing emotions and dealing with social situations.
The addiction research field has traditionally analyzed the differences in brain structure between individuals with substance abuse problems and those without, or the activity in separate areas of the brain. Research into the functional connectivity not only in particular areas but actually between areas of the brain could produce groundbreaking explanations for previously unknown correlations between functional connectivity and rates of substance abuse. The hope is that this could provide key knowledge for developing therapies to target these neural networks and even predict individuals’ future alcohol use and provide relevant support.
Methods And Aims Of The Study
The study, entitled Low Versus High Level of Response to Alcohol Affects Amygdala Functional Connectivity During Processing of Emotional Stimuli, built on existing research that both demonstrates the genetic influence on substance abuse and the association between a person’s level of response to alcohol and the likelihood that they will develop alcohol problems.
To expand on this, it means that the study separates people into two groups: people who feel the effects of alcohol relatively easily – after just a few units – referred to as low LR; and people who must consume a higher number of drinks to feel the effects, referred to in the study as high LR.
Generally, people with a low LR (who need more alcohol to feel the effects) are more likely to consume more alcohol and develop substance abuse problems over time. In comparison, individuals with a high LR (who only need a little alcohol to feel the effects).
Previous research has found that people with a low LR experience decreased activity in particular areas of the brain – including the amygdala which is responsible for regulating emotions, connecting emotional meaning to memories, reward processing, and decision-making. This new research, however, ties in an assessment of the functional connectivity between the brain areas that experience decreased activity. It centers on observing activity in certain brain areas as participants process the emotions on different faces.
The hypothesis of the study came in two parts; Hypothesis 1 is based on young individuals who did not have a history of alcohol use disorder but where blood oxygen-level dependent differences were observed in different brain areas when participants consumed a placebo, non-alcoholic drink.
Further, the hypothesis stated that those with low LR will show lower levels of functional connectivity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex when they are processing emotional faces compared to high LR individuals.
When carrying out the study, scientists found 108 young adults without a history of alcohol abuse as having either low LR or high LR to alcohol. Then, they instructed participants to drink a small volume of what they thought was an alcoholic drink, however a non-alcoholic placebo was in fact given to some. They were then asked to engage in an emotional face-processing task where they had to identify happy, angry, and fearful faces. Meanwhile, the researchers analyzed their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Results Of The Study
Results found that even when consuming the placebo non-alcoholic drink, people with low LR displayed less functional connectivity between the amygdala and the other brain regions while they processed the emotional faces. Moreover, after consuming alcohol, low LR individuals displayed even less functional connectivity, whereas connectivity in fact increased for high LR participants after a small volume of the alcoholic drink.
What This Means For Substance Abuse Care
This research could provide a mechanism for identifying individuals who may be at increased risk of developing future alcohol problems. In fact, the researchers reviewed follow-up data five years after the initial study on the same participants. They discovered that they could accurately correlate the participants’ functional connectivity patterns from the initial brain scans to predict future alcohol-related problems.
This provides a significant discovery in the field, bringing hope of identifying genetically-influenced neurobiological differences early-on that may predict future substance abuse-related behavior. There is hope that by identifying these differences early, individuals can mitigate risk before they ever develop problematic drinking habits which may spiral into something more.
It also provides important insight into how education programs can be tailored. This information could help medical professionals identify which patients are predisposed to the disorder, knowing how to target the issue, what kind of education to deliver, and the most suitable time to provide it.
Finally, it gives additional insight into addiction treatment and recovery programs with Marc Schuckit, MD, senior author of the UC San Diego School of Medicine study and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry saying “If we can develop therapies to target these networks, this could be a powerful tool for stopping the disorder in its tracks.”