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Investigators at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco undertook a study of alcoholics who enrolled themselves in treatment for drinking. The study alleged that the ones who did not partake alcohol for at least a year had identical levels of key biochemical indicators of brain health as non-alcoholic controls at the time they entered treatment. However, the study contradicted that those who relapsed during that year showed those indicators at a very low level.

“This finding may indicate some kind of resilience factors are operating among the abstainers, or vulnerability factors among the relapsers. Further study is necessary to understand the nature of the pattern of results we observed,” commented the lead author Timothy Durazzo, PhD, an SFVAMC study author and an assistant adjunct professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at UCSF.

Magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure n-acetyl aspartate (NAA).It may be this that indicates neuronal integrity, and creatine, which may show cell metabolic integrity, in several regions of the brain which is collectively known as the ‘brain reward system.’

Durazzo further stated that, “Together, these brain regions are involved with reasoning, planning, judgment, impulse control, and anticipation and processing of pleasure. It’s the system that helps us weigh the pros and cons of our actions and then change our behavior based on the consequences.”

51 individuals diagnosed with alcohol dependence were followed up by researchers and matched with 26 light-drinking control subjects. These researchers then measured the NAA and creatine within four to ten days after the drinkers entered treatment. A year later the authors, compared the MRI data with that of the controls between the alcoholics who had stayed sober and those who had relapsed. It was then observed that although the abstainers’ levels did not alter from those of the controls the future relapsers had NAA and creatine levels that were compellingly lower compared with both the controls and the future abstainers.

“This study adds to the accumulating evidence that there are structural and biochemical abnormalities in the brain reward system in people who have chronic problems with substances and alcohol,” commented Dieter Meyerhoff, Dr. Rer. Nat.,principal investigator, senior researcher at SFVAMC and professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at UCSF.

Durazoo assures that the further study will consider whether the relapsers have a past of undergoing a treatment for drinking and if yes then did or did not their brain neurobiology change since their last treatment? It is also claimed that alcohol and substance dependence are extremely complex issues as there are always social, cognitive, psychiatric, and biological issues that contribute to alcohol and substance abuse.

The study appeared in the March 2010 issue of the ‘Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.’