First, the good news: people can win against alcohol addiction. In new research by Carleton University and the University of Toronto, at least 50 percent with alcohol dependence no longer had any form of mental illness or addiction. About 40 percent reported being in excellent mental health.
Around the globe, alcohol consumption fell by over 1.5 percent in 2018, according to the drinks analyst IWSR. In fact, people, including Americans, were drinking even less during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the biggest sellers in the United States observes how consumers now prefer healthier, organic, and non-alcoholic options.
However, those who have already gone through alcohol addiction recovery know that the battle isn’t always over. There is still the possibility of a relapse simply because dependence is a tricky problem to treat: it affects how the brain works.
How Chronic Alcohol Use Can Impact the Brain
Many factors can increase the risk of alcohol dependence and addiction, and one of these may be changes in the brain, particularly in the area that regulates motivation or reward.
In a 2020 study by Scripps Research Institute, the team found out that chronic alcohol use can change the anti-inflammatory properties of the amygdala.
What is the amygdala? This is the almond-shaped cluster of cells that sits at the brainstem or base of the brain. A person will have two, each on its side of the hemisphere.
Amygdala is one of the primary components of the limbic system, which is a collection of structures that all together play a huge part in emotions, motivation, and rewards.
In particular, in this part of the brain, people recognize or put words and meanings into their feelings and, thus, can respond accordingly. The amygdala is also responsible for emotional memory.
Meanwhile, Dr. Jon Willie, a neurosurgeon in Atlanta’s Emory University, shared that the amygdala can also help train the mind to remember the most. In a way, it is vital in human survival.
According to the Scripps’ study, too much alcohol drinking is associated with lower levels of an anti-inflammatory marker called interleukin 10 (IL-10) in mice.
Because of these changes, the brain may have less protection against damage. In the process, the signal processing of neurons is disrupted. It could compel the individual to drink more so that it can activate the brain’s reward system.
The decline in brain protection, particularly in the amygdala, may also explain the connection between dementia and alcohol drinking. A 2016 research in the Current Alzheimer Research showed that those who drink heavily might also experience faster cognitive decline.
Changes in the Neurotransmitters
Besides changes in the amygdala, people with alcohol drinking problems may also have lower levels of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. This means that the amino acid excites the nerve cells in the body to cause them to communicate more effectively at the right time. Overall, this is how one can maintain a healthy function of the brain.
A 2018 study by Indiana University revealed that glutamate levels are associated with a recovering individual’s risk of a relapse. This is based on the premise of another research by George Rebec, which said that exposure to cues linked to the substance they’re addicted to, like sights and sounds, can affect the levels of glutamate.
For the 2018 study, the team worked with 35 people, of which 17 had been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. When exposed to cues like a picture of an alcoholic drink, those who had the health problem registered lower levels of glutamate compared to those who have no alcohol addiction.
Why does this happen? Some experts have earlier said that alcohol can gradually damage the glutamate receptors of the nerve cells, which can interrupt the way they communicate with one another, including in pathways that regulate rewards and motivation.
Here’s Why Treatment Needs to Be Ongoing
Studies have shown that by just quitting alcohol for two weeks—the gray matter, a part of the brain related to decision making, memory, and control—may gradually expand.
But it needs time to heal. Because of how the alcohol problem changes how the brain functions, a person’s recovery plan should not end as soon as they leave the premises. Instead, it needs to be continuous and may even have to be more regulated and updated as the individual returns to the real world.
With regular therapies, which may include non-drug interventions like counseling, an alcohol dependent can learn to avoid the triggers and learn to manage the effect of these cues should they get exposed to them.