fMRI Shows How “One Day At A Time” Work for Recovering Alcoholics

fMRI Shows How “One Day At A Time” Work for Recovering Alcoholics

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“One day at a time” is a mantra for recovering alcoholics, for whom each day without a drink builds the strength to go on to the next. A new brain imaging study by Yale researchers shows why the approach works.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is associated with neuroadaptations in brain stress and reward circuits. It is not known whether such neuroadaptations are affected by number of days of alcohol abstinence and whether they influence heavy drinking during the early treatment phase. The authors used a novel functional MRI (fMRI) approach to assess brain responses during sustained exposure to standardized visual stimuli of stressful, alcohol cue, and neutral control images combined with prospective assessment of drinking outcomes during early outpatient treatment, in two related studies.

Relative to control subjects, patients with AUD showed significant hyperreactivity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) in response to neutral images, but significant hypoactivation in the vmPFC and ventral striatum in response to stress images and to alcohol cues relative to response to neutral images. In study 2, this specific prefrontal-ventral striatal dysfunction was associated with fewer days of alcohol abstinence and also predicted greater number heavy drinking days during the subsequent 2 weeks of treatment engagement.

Number of days of alcohol abstinence at treatment initiation significantly affected functional disruption of the prefrontal-striatal responses to stress images and to alcohol cues in patients with AUD, and the severity of this disruption in turn predicted greater heavy drinking during early treatment. Treatments that target this functional prefrontal-striatal pathology could improve early treatment outcomes in AUD.