Kenneth R. Warren, acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of National Institute of Health, said people in recovery from alcoholism who showed hyperactivity in areas of the prefrontal cortex during a relaxing scenario were eight times as likely to relapse as those showing normal brain patterns or healthy controls.
The prefrontal brain plays a role in regulating emotion, the ability to suppress urges and decisionmaking. Chronic drinking may damage regions involved in self-control, affecting the ability to regulate cravings and resist relapse, Warren said.
"Reducing the high rate of relapse among people treated for alcohol dependence is a fundamental research issue," Warren said in a statement. "Improving our understanding of the neural mechanisms that underlie relapse will help us identify susceptible individuals and could inform the development of other prevention strategies."
The investigators found individuals in recovery who showed patterns of heightened activity in the prefrontal region during the relaxing situation were much more likely to experience cravings for alcohol and subsequent relapse.
These patterns of craving-related activity increased the likelihood of early relapse by 8.5 times and relapse to heavy drinking by 8.7 times. Abnormally low activity during the stressful scenario was also linked to greater number of days drinking after relapse, the study found.
The findings were published in the journal Psychiatry.