Alcohol Misuse Linked to Lower Connectivity in Brain Areas Processing Emotions

“Addictions, including substance use disorders (SUDs), are multistep conditions that, by definition, require exposure to an addictive agent. The wide variety of addictive agents encompasses drugs, foods, sex, video gaming, and gambling. Any of these agents may lead to an ‘addicted state’ through neurobiological pathways partially overlapping with those involved in addiction to psychoactive substances,” wrote Francesca Ducci and David Goldman in their 2012 study on the genetic basis of addictive disorders. 

“In individuals who are vulnerable to addiction, repetitive exposure to the agent induces long-lasting neuroadaptive changes that further promote drug-seeking behaviors and ultimately lead to persistent and uncontrolled patterns of use that constitute addiction.” 

Researchers have not only been looking at neuroadaptive changes caused by substance use but also certain neural activity patterns that may predispose individuals to become addicted to certain substances or behaviors in the first place. A recent UC San Diego study found that persons at risk of developing alcohol use disorder show less communication between brain areas involved in social and emotional processing.

The researchers proposed that “the altered neural activity patterns may impair some people’s ability to interpret facial expressions. These differences in brain connectivity, the researchers found, could be used to predict individuals’ future alcohol use, and may provide the basis for new interventions to treat or prevent alcohol use disorder,” reported Nicole Mlynaryk for the UC San Diego News Center.

The risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD) is genetically influenced and has been associated with an individual’s level of response to alcohol, or how many drinks they must consume before experiencing intoxication. Those with a low level of response to alcohol (low LR) tend to drink more and develop alcohol problems over time, compared to those with a high level of response (high LR).

“Prior studies of low LR individuals noted decreased activity in certain brain regions, including the amygdala, that are involved in processing emotions and rewards. However, the new study is the first to assess the functional connectivity between these brain regions in this context,” wrote Mlynaryk. 

“The ability to read facial expressions affects the way we interpret a situation and shift our behavior in response,” said study author Ben McKenna, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “If you can’t properly process this valuable social and emotional information, this will affect your behavior, including your choice to cease or continue drinking.”

In the study, 108 young adults with no history of alcohol misuse were characterized as having low or high levels of response to alcohol. They were then asked to either consume a small volume of alcohol or a non-alcoholic placebo beverage and perform an emotional face processing task to identify happy, angry, and fearful faces while brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Researchers found that even without alcohol consumption, low LR individuals had less functional connectivity between the amygdala and the frontal lobes, insula, and parietal regions while processing the emotional faces. After consuming alcohol, this connectivity was further reduced in low LR individuals, while connectivity actually increased for high LR participants.

“We were surprised to find that the brain areas are communicating differently in these people even without any alcohol consumed, and before they have developed any significant alcohol problems,” said McKenna.

The decreased connections may make it more difficult for people with low LR to interpret and respond appropriately to input from their social environment. For instance, seeing a happy face would typically produce rewarding brain signals, but if the happy faces are not being sensed properly, low LR individuals may rely on alcohol use to provide a maladaptive reward—with possibly devastating negative consequences for their well-being. 

“If these genetically-influenced neurobiological differences are predictive of future behavior, maybe we can identify them early on and try to educate people before they ever develop problematic drinking,” said McKenna.

It will probably be a while before anybody can be helped with such early interventions. A severe alcohol use disorder is a complex condition often requiring acute detoxification and comprehensive follow-up treatment. 

Valiant Living Detox and Assessment is a 16-bed facility that provides comprehensive care beyond acute withdrawal management to launch your recovery journey. Detoxification should be supervised by medical professionals. The treatment team at Valiant Living Detox and Assessment utilizes a multidisciplinary approach that includes a medical director, psychiatric nurse practitioner, LPNs, counselors, and addiction technicians.

We created a transitional short-term residential program to make it easier for clients to consider the best way forward after their medical detox. The program helps clients and their families understand often unfamiliar treatment options better. Its emphasis is on post-detox stabilization and it prioritizes treatment planning and next-step care coordination.

If you are seeking a comprehensive start for your addiction treatment, contact us at 303-647-4932. We provide a safe, supportive haven in the earliest stages of recovery. Get the individualized attention you need for stabilization, assessment, and discerning the best next steps in your journey

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