A recent study on the effects of alcohol on the brain shows that the longer someone with an alcohol abuse history is abstinent, the less likely he or she is to be triggered by alcohol or drug cues. The study, which used an infrared instrument similar to neuroimaging assessment tools like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), showed that when exposed to various alcohol cues, the brain of those with more abstinent days showed less drug activation. While self-reporting and toxicology screening assessments have reported similar results, the infrared assessment tool is considered more accurate, as it can show actual brain activity and thus provide more objective indicators. Cues such as the smell of a certain kind of alcohol, some social situations, advertisements for the drink of choice, or even subtle sounds like the jingle of car keys, can initiate cravings. These cues are stored in the brain as a result of an individual’s drinking patterns, and when the cue is triggered, the conditioned reaction is often craving. Most addiction experts believe that these cue-specific reactions are responsible for relapse. The added evidence of an infra-red image showing the effects of alcohol on the brain brings home the hope that the longer one stays sober, the more likely it is that the triggers will fade. The study results are good news for a number of reasons:
  1. They substantiate that brain functioning can improve. Many people wrongly believe that the effects of alcohol on the brain are irreparable, but the studies show that the parts of the brain that control behavior and emotional response are likely to heal over time. Individuals confronting addiction are likely to experience better quality sleep, improved impulse control and better focus as they accumulate days of abstinence.
  2. Family members can rest assured that the bizarre behavior of their loved ones will subside as brain function improves. More adaptive behaviors will emerge as the addicted individual learns better coping mechanisms, including ways to avoid drug cues and manage reactivity.
  3. Treatment professionals can confidently work on alcohol cues with their clients, knowing that by identifying specific cues, individuals can learn to avoid them and deal with them when they are triggered. The study shows that advising the addicted individual to steer clear of friends or family members who drink, and to avoid similar cues, is evidence-based guidance.
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