How Brain Scans Can Predict Relapse

New research from Yale University suggests that carrying-out brain scans on recovering alcoholics could reveal the risk of relapse.  

The brain scans show the activity in the parts of the brain responsible for emotions and desires. According to the study, alcoholics with abnormal activity in these areas are eight times more likely to relapse than alcoholics with more normal patterns of activity.

“These areas in the prefrontal cortex are involved in regulating emotion and in controlling responses to reward,” said Rajita Sinha, professor of Psychiatry at Yale University and Director of the Yale Stress Center. “They are damaged by high levels of alcohol and stress and just do not function well.”

The brain scans could be used as a diagnostic tool for professionals working in the addiction field to identify patients who are at risk of relapsing and prevent it by intervening accordingly, adds professor Sinha.

How the brain scans work

The fMRI scans can trace the atypical activity of the brain in the regions of emotional control, while alcoholics imagine both relaxing and stressful situations.

When imagining a relaxing scenario (e.g. sitting on the beach and listening to the waves) the non-alcoholic’s brain region will show little activity, while the alcoholics with a risk of relapse will have an intense emotional response.

However, when remembering a recent stressful event from their lives, a non-alcoholic will show an intense activity while the alcoholic’s prefrontal cortex is much less active.

The study suggests that “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”.

Castle Craig Hospital recognises the need to repair the brain damage that affects alcoholics and drug addicts, and the right conditions and activities are in place within our treatment programme to enable this.