Study suggests heavy drinking stops when costs are clear

April 3, 2014

Often, the most difficult step in the recovery process is making the initial decision to attend alcohol rehab. From there, a team of professional counselors, therapists and medical experts can help those who have struggled with alcohol abuse toward a better life.

However, many friends and family members have a difficult time persuading a loved one to seek treatment due to a drinking problem. The person in question may provide excuses and reasons for why his or her drinking is not the issue it truly is, and it often falls onto the shoulders of family and friends to somehow get their loved one the help he or she need.

A recent study from the University of Georgia may provide some insight into the brains of heavy drinkers and the decision-making processes that lead to or away from the act of drinking. Using this information to better articulate the cost of a loved one’s drinking in his or her life, family and friends may be able to increase the chances of a successful intervention.

Making decisions under the influence

Conducted by associate professor James MacKillop of the University of Georgia’s Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology Laboratory, the study used a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine to measure the brain activity of several heavy drinkers when they were offered more alcohol.

Rather than conduct a baseline test, MacKillop provided 24 men with a $15 bar tab and then had them pick from a selection of other drinks of varying prices once inside the fMRI. If the men chose a particular drink, they would be given it at a bar immediately after. If they passed, they would receive the price of the drink in cash.

“We were interested in understanding how the brain makes decisions about drinking alcohol,” MacKillop said in a statement. “Particularly, we wanted to clarify how the brain weighs the pros and cons of drinking.”

MacKillop’s study found that different areas of the brain saw increased activity levels when drinking in general and the relative cost of drinking was discussed with the men inside the fMRI. The latter topic saw the frontostriatal regions flare up, which MacKillop explained are associated with deliberation and cost-benefit analysis thinking.

Prior to the study, MacKillop anticipated that decisions to stop drinking would produce the highest levels of activity in the brain, but when the cost of drinking became too high, the fMRI images saw curtailed brain activity, which could signal a lack of internal conflict over the decision.

Relating cost-benefit analysis to interventions

MacKillop’s study may have positive benefits for family members and friends interested in an intervention for a loved struggling with alcoholism. The Mayo Clinic explained that, among other things, such as a declaration of support for the loved one, interventions function as a detailed list of the tolls drinking has taken not only on that person’s life, but those of everyone he or she has known.

If an intervention is able to clearly state the high cost of drinking, MacKillop’s study may suggest that treatment may be the more likely choice for the person struggling with alcohol. In fact, there may be less conflict in the choice as well due to the overwhelming evidence of drinking’s effects on the lives of everyone around him or her.

The Mayo Clinic recommended specificity in all areas of the intervention process. Family and friends should plan in detail how they intend to conduct the intervention and should write out their thoughts with specific occurrences of the harms alcohol has caused in their lives. Additionally, setting clear consequences if treatment is not chosen may be the final straw that makes the cost of continued alcohol abuse too high.

The recovery process is obviously much more complex than a single decision, but it all starts with that first step.

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