A PET Scan Can Predict Alcoholic Relapse

Alcoholism is a devastating and complicated disease that affects millions of people. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 15 million Americans have an alcohol abuse disorder. Alcohol is also the 4th leading cause of preventable death. Researchers and doctors are exploring all avenues to better understand alcoholism and how to prevent alcoholic relapse. 

It has long been known that alcoholism has some kind of relationship with genes given that it often passes from one generation to the next. Researchers are just starting to understand what genes are affected and why. The most recent discovery has to do with the brain and neuroreceptors. A study found a way that seems to predict alcoholic relapse!

A study conducted by the Society of Nuclear Medicine revealed this month a new understanding of neuroreceptors linked to compulsions to drink. PET brain imaging was used for the study, which involved both normal healthy brains and brains of newly sober individuals at various stages of recovery. The researchers were trying to understand the root cause of an alcoholic relapse and if there were any physical changes in the brain prior to relapse. The study coursed over 6 months with intervals of PET scans and what they found is truly fascinating.

What Happens In The Brain When You Get Sober?

The specific receptors of interest are known as “mGluR5,” which are receptors in the brain and central nervous system associated with memory, learning, feelings of anxiety, and cravings. When a person drinks heavily and constantly, the bioavailability of these receptors is reduced due to the brain adapting to alcohol dependence.

In the study, the brains of those who were newly sober had significantly lower available mGluR5 receptors compared to those with normal brains. This suggests that the body is compensating for chronic alcohol abuse by biochemically turning down the urge to drink.

Dr. Gil Leurquin-Sterk stated, “lower mGluR5 bioavailability may represent a reversible and potentially beneficial neuroadaptation in alcohol-dependent subjects that help to reduce cravings and risk of relapse during abstinence.”


What Causes Relapse?

The study found that as time goes on the mGluR5 begins to replenish, which sometimes brings back the compulsion to drink. Because the receptor is linked to habit formation and cravings, an increase of bioavailability of these receptors insidiously triggers cravings and old habits.

Subjects of the study showed an increase of activity with these receptors by 2 months of recovery. By the 6th month of recovery, their receptors had fully recovered and were fully functional. Throughout the testing the scientists saw some key correlations when the subjects relapsed:

  • Lower levels of mGluR5 at the beginning of sobriety meant better odds of long-term recovery.
  • Those who had faster regeneration of mGluR5 were more likely to have an alcoholic relapse.

The study stated “alcoholic subjects who had higher baseline mGluR5 in an area of the brain associated with habit formation — specifically the anterior putamen and internal globus pallidus (GPi) of the basal ganglia — were more likely to relapse within six months of follow-up than alcoholics who came into the study with lower mGluR5 availability.”

The study also asked the subjects questions during each session. The subjects who had the lowest levels of mGluR5 activity at the beginning of the study answered that they had no intention or cravings to drink, even as their brains reached a recovered levels.

What Could This Mean?

This study reveals the possibility that a brain imbalance may play a large role in alcoholic relapse. As with many medications, brain chemical imbalances can be manipulated, such as with antidepressants. If researchers can figure out the exact physical causes of alcoholic relapse, then they might be able to develop a treatment to change the levels of mGluR5.

This study may be opening the door to a medication that can be taken to keep alcohol cravings at a minimum and reverse the learned habits of compulsive drinking. Some medications currently exist but are not largely successful. A medication that could eliminate the desire for unhealthy drinking patterns could quite possibly mean a “cure” for alcoholism.

This study also reveals a new area of the brain to be studied under different circumstances. PET scans may be able to quantify the success of different styles of therapy, addiction treatment, and support groups. It is possible that members of AA or addiction therapy programs are already receiving “treatments” to this area of the brain.

As of now, there is no one agreed effective treatment for addiction. The level of treatment effectiveness varies patient to patient. With PET scan imaging and the study of neuroreceptors, doctors may be able to pinpoint the most effective methods. The more alcoholic relapse is understood, the more effective addiction treatment will become.

Seeking Treatment for Alcoholism and Addiction

If you or a loved one has a problem with alcoholism or addiction and want to experience recovery in a thriving community with lots of people just like you, then call the professionals at Stout Street today at 866-722-7040. Our trained staff is standing by to take your call and help you in any way we can. We know how difficult of a decision this can be and we know what it takes to ensure you find your own personal path in recovery.  You no longer have to do it alone, so give us a call today and find the happy and sober life you’ve always dreamed of.