New research reveals the emotional costs of alcoholism

Alcoholics, especially those who relapse after frequent attempts to “dry out”, are damaging areas of their brain that recognise emotions, a University of Sussex study suggests.

Research on people’s responses to photographs of different emotional facial expressions shows that heavy drinkers who had previously tried to kick the bottle are more likely than either non-alcoholics, or alcoholics who had not previously experienced withdrawal symptoms, to read fear and sadness in all emotional expressions.

The study, by experimental psychologist Dr Theodora Duka and research fellow Julia Townshend, has important implications for the treatment of alcoholics.

“If rehabilitation fails, we are left with alcoholics who are misinterpreting or exaggerating the emotions of those around them,” says Dr Duka. “This can lead to more conflict in their environment, and more mental health problems.”

The area of the brain that encodes the emotions of fear and sadness is the amygdala. Previous experiments using animals have shown that the repeated effects of alcohol withdrawal impair the functions of this area. For alcoholics with a history of detoxification, damage to the amygdala would result in them no longer being able to accurately interpret particular emotions.

The research also reveals that alcoholics in general are more likely to confuse the facial expressions of anger and disgust – emotions that are believed to be encoded in the basal ganglia and orbitofrontal cortex of the brain. This confusion, however, is not related to the frequency of alcohol withdrawal but is likely to be a symptom of long-term abuse.

Dr Duka’s study was carried out on 15 alcoholic inpatients attending a London clinic. The participants had abstained from alcohol at the time of the experiment. At least two weeks had passed since admission to the clinic and they had all been medically supported with standard, detoxification treatments. They had been free from all medication for at least one week before testing. A control group of 15 social drinkers matched with the patient population were recruited from the postgraduate student and staff population of the University of Sussex.

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