How Alcoholism Might Affect Your Brain, Even If You Don't Drink

Whiskey Glass on a Table

While scientists have recognized a link between genes and addiction, alcoholism is still largely misunderstood and hard to predict. In fact, even those who can manage their drinking or avoid alcohol altogether can still be affected by their family's history of drinking—and not just emotionally.

A study published in NeuroImage found participants with a family history of alcoholism lacked a specific function in the brain, often associated with addiction and alcoholism.

Researchers from Purdue University and the Indiana University School of Medicine analyzed the brains of 54 individuals and found typical brains undergo a process of "reconfiguration" after completing a mentally demanding task. But those with family histories of alcoholism skipped that phase.

What is reconfiguration?

Researcher Joaquín Goñi, Ph.D., compared the process to closing a computer program when you're finished using it. 

It allows the computer to remove the program from its memory, reorganize, and prepare for the next task, Goñi explained. "In a similar way, we've found that this reconfiguration process in the human brain is associated with finishing a task and getting ready for what's next." 

But in the brains of people with a family history of alcoholism, the resetting phase is skipped. Instead, they transition straight from active brain to resting brain. 

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How did the researchers find this?

About half of the participants had "a parent who had enough symptoms to constitute an alcohol use disorder."

Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, they measured participants' brain activity as they completed a mentally demanding task. While resting, they were asked to stare at a fixed point on a screen. 

Outside of the MRI, participants were surveyed on reward-impatience—a trait of alcoholism and addiction—by answering questions like, "Would you like $20 now or $200 in one year?"  

Those with family histories of alcoholism lacked the reconfiguration phase, even if they themselves had a healthy relationship with alcohol or didn't drink at all. 

"In the past, we've assumed that a person who doesn't drink excessively is a 'healthy' control for a study," Goñi said. "But this work shows that a person with just a family history of alcoholism may also have some subtle differences in how their brains operate." 

How does this affect someone with a genetic history of alcoholism?

Lacking this transition does not affect a person's performance during the mentally demanding task; however, it might lead to other behaviors associated with addiction, including reward-impatience. 

Understanding how strongly family history plays a role in brain functioning could lead researchers one step closer to understanding addiction.

Along with genetic predispositions, researchers have found sadness might be at the root of addictive behaviors.

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