Researchers Find Alcoholics Display Abnormal Brain Activity When Processing Facial Expressions

August 11, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) have found that individuals who have a long history of alcoholism, but who have been abstinent for at least a month up to many years, showed abnormal brain activity when looking at facial expressions of others. The findings, which appear in the current issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, confirms that alcoholics suffer from abnormalities in parts of the brain that control emotional perception and memory.

The emotional changes experienced by a long-term chronic alcoholic cover a broad spectrum. Some of these changes, apathy and emotional flatness are reminiscent of those seen in patients with bilateral frontal lobe damage or in patients with right-hemisphere damage. Other abnormalities are subtle. For example, alcoholics may make atypical judgments regarding the nature of facial emotional expressions, suggesting that alcoholism may involve an underlying neurocognitive deficit in the capacity to comprehend emotional information.

In this study, researchers compared abstinent long-term alcoholics to healthy nonalcoholic controls by using (fMRI) that focused on abnormalities in temporal limbic (amygdala and hippocampus) activation to emotionally expressive faces.

Employing both verbal (word) and non-verbal (face) materials in an effort to contrast relative hemispheric sensitivities to the cumulative effects of abuse, the researchers found abstinent long-term alcoholics showed decreased and abnormal brain activity when looking at , in particular in the amygdala and hippocampus areas of the brain.

According to the researchers, the results provide unique evidence of neurophysiological changes in emotional functioning associated with chronic alcoholism.

The findings also concur with clinical reports documenting interpersonal difficulties in this population “Since "reading facial expressions" is an important part of social interaction, alcoholics as well as other previously addicted groups, may be suffering from brain abnormalities in parts of the brain that control emotional perception and memory,” said author Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD, a professor of neurology (Neuropsychology) and psychiatry and Director of BUSM’s Laboratory of Neuropsychology. “Furthermore, these results reveal neural substrates underlying alcoholism-related emotional anomalies and impairments of brain reward circuitry that mediate addictions such as alcoholism,” she added.

Provided by Boston University

Explore further: Children of alcoholics: different brain regions effect who may or may not develop alcohol problems

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paulthebassguy
not rated yet Aug 11, 2009
No wonder alcoholics always have such dry senses of humour.
Bbrhuft
not rated yet Aug 17, 2009
Fascinating, absolutely fascinating. I met a homeless alcoholic a few years ago, bought him a sandwich and we spoke for an hour while sitting on a bench. He was obsessed with his ex-wife (that's why he drank) and Irish history, he monologued endlessly ... I could not get a word in edge-ways. Though his history trivia was fascinating, even gave me websites to look up. He was very like people I met who have Asperger's syndrome.

And its not the first time I met an intelligent, well spoken, obsessive & socially isolated homeless alcoholic, this study increases my suspicion that there are many homeless alcoholics have autism spectrum disorders.

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