Can't find something? Search Here.

Repeated Alcohol Detox Changes Brain, Study Finds

Posted in Addiction News

alcoholchangesbrainAlcohol detoxification is the process that occurs when a person accustomed to drinking in excessive amounts stops consuming alcohol and experiences the effects of alcohol withdrawal. When people affected by alcoholism enter treatment for their drinking, they go through a period of detox that can range in intensity from mild to severe. In a study published in August 2014 in the journal Addiction Biology, researchers from two British universities assessed the brain effects of going through multiple cycles of alcohol detoxification and alcohol relapse. These researchers concluded that people who go through repeated detox episodes undergo brain changes that make additional relapses more likely to occur.

Alcohol Detoxification

All people affected by alcoholism have undergone changes in their brain chemistry that make them physically dependent on continued alcohol intake. When physically dependent people stop drinking, they inevitably go through a detoxification period when alcohol leaves the brain and body. The detox process commonly leads to the onset of withdrawal a few hours after the last episode of alcohol consumption. Withdrawal typically reaches its maximum intensity within one to three days; however, withdrawal symptoms may continue to exert their effects for several weeks.

Core symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include an irritable or anxious mental state, a depressed or “down” mental state, rapid mood changes, a loss of mental clarity, declining energy levels, increased sweat output, headaches, disrupted sleep patterns, nausea, vomiting, skin clamminess, an accelerated heartbeat and involuntary hand tremors. People with a history of extremely heavy drinking may also experience an emergency withdrawal-related condition called delirium tremens (the DTs). Symptoms of this condition include convulsions, advanced levels of mental confusion, hallucinations and a prominent spike in body temperature.

Alcohol Relapse

During the detoxification and withdrawal process, people addicted to alcohol typically develop strong urges to return to drinking and thereby escape their highly unpleasant, withdrawal-related physical and mental reality. Unfortunately, these urges to return to drinking don’t end with alcohol detoxification and withdrawal. Instead, alcohol cravings commonly recur throughout the recovery process. In acknowledgment of this fact, alcohol treatment programs spend much of their time helping patients/clients learn to cope with the recurring urge to drink and maintain an alcohol-free lifestyle. Relapses occur when a person in alcohol recovery temporarily or permanently disengages from the treatment process and returns to an active pattern of alcohol intake. In most cases, such events are the result of a combination of recurring drinking urges and exposure to triggers or cues that act as conscious or unconscious reminders of alcohol-oriented daily routines.

Impact of Repeated Detoxification

In the study published in Addiction Biology, researchers from the University of Sussex and King’s College London used a combination of MRI scans and functional testing to assess the brain health of people who go through repeated incidences of alcohol detoxification. A total of 60 adults took part in this project. Twelve of these individuals had gone through detox at least twice, while 17 had gone through detox a single time. The remaining 31 study participants were social drinkers who had never developed alcoholism or gone through the detoxification process. The participants in all three groups were currently abstinent from alcohol use. The researchers used the MRI scans to examine the size or volume of structures in the brain that play a critical role in higher-level mental capacity. They used the functional testing to assess each participant’s ability to appropriately use his or her higher-level mental skills to control behavior.

The researchers concluded that the group that had gone through detox multiple times and the group that had gone through detox just once both displayed a loss of behavioral control when compared to the social drinkers enrolled in the study. In addition, both alcoholism-affected groups had lost tissue volume in the parts of the brain under consideration. However, the participants who had gone through detoxification multiple times had especially low volume in one crucial brain area. The researchers linked brain volume loss in this area to a reduced ability to exercise behavioral control.

Based on their findings, the study’s authors concluded that, in combination with the severity of a person’s alcoholism symptoms, recurring exposure to the alcohol detoxification process is associated with a loss of brain volume and a subsequent decline in brain function. They believe that the behavioral control deficits associated with recurring alcohol detox may increase recovering individuals’ odds of relapsing back into alcohol use in the future.