Posts Tagged Alcoholism

Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-Control


Abstract Thinking as Means to Boost Self-ControlSelf-control is much easier talked about than accomplished, and that applies to improving diet, exercise and reducing stress.

Researchers point out that many of the long-term goals people strive for — like losing weight — require us to use self-control and forgo immediate gratification. But ignoring immediate desires in order to reap future benefits is often very hard to do.

In a new study, researchers Kentaro Fujita, Ph.D., and Jessica Carnevale of Ohio State University propose that the way people subjectively understand, or construe, events can influence self-control.

Experts say that thinking about things abstractly and placing the items into broad categories (called high-level construal) allows us to psychologically distance ourselves from the pushes and pulls of the immediate moment. This, in turn, makes us more sensitive to the big picture implications of our behavior and helps us become more consistent between our values and our behavior.

For example, a dieter choosing based on immediately apparent differences between the choices (low-level construal) might focus on taste and opt for a candy bar over an apple.

A dieter choosing on the basis of high-level construal, however, might view the choice in the broader terms of a choice between weight loss and hedonism, and opt for the apple.

Viewing the decision-making process in an abstract or construal process as a means to maximize self-control involves the integration of many scientific disciplines.

Researchers believe investigating the link between construal level and self-control may be a method to help society confront societal problems including obesity, addiction, and debt.

The research is published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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Alcoholism Affects Men’s and Women’s Brains Differently


Alcoholism Affects Men's and Women's Brains DifferentlyNew research has demonstrated that the effects on white matter brain volume from long-term alcohol abuse are different for men and women.

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System also suggest that when they stop drinking, women recover their white matter brain volume more quickly than men.

Previous research has linked alcoholism with white matter reduction, according to the researchers, who explain that white matter forms the connections between neurons, allowing communication between different areas of the brain.

In this latest study, a research team, led by Susan Mosher Ruiz, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research scientist in the Laboratory for Neuropsychology at BUSM and research scientist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, and Marlene Oscar Berman, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, neurology and anatomy and neurobiology at BUSM and research career scientist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, employed structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the effects of drinking history and gender on white matter volume.

They examined brain images from 42 abstinent alcoholic men and women who drank heavily for more than five years and 42 nonalcoholic men and women. The researchers found that a greater number of years of alcohol abuse was associated with smaller white matter volumes in the alcoholic men and women. In the men, the decrease was observed in the corpus callosum, while in women this effect was observed in cortical white matter regions.

“We believe that many of the cognitive and emotional deficits observed in people with chronic alcoholism, including memory problems and flat affect, are related to disconnections that result from a loss of white matter,” said Mosher Ruiz.

The researchers also found that the number of daily drinks had a strong impact on alcoholic women, with the volume loss 1.5 to 2 percent for each additional drink. Additionally, there was an 8 to 10 percent increase in the size of the brain ventricles, which are areas filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that play a protective role in the brain. When white matter dies, CSF produced in the ventricles fills the ventricular space.

The researchers also found that in men, white matter brain volume in the corpus callosum recovered at a rate of 1 percent per year for each year of abstinence. For people who abstained less than a year, the researchers found evidence of increased white matter volume and decreased ventricular volume in women, but not in men. However, for people in recovery for more than a year, those signs of recovery disappeared in women and became apparent in men.

“These findings preliminarily suggest that restoration and recovery of the brain’s white matter among alcoholics occurs later in abstinence for men than for women,” said Mosher Ruiz. “We hope that additional research in this area can help lead to improved treatment methods that include educating both alcoholic men and women about the harmful effects of excessive drinking and the potential for recovery with sustained abstinence.”

The research was published online in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Source: Boston University Medical Center

Brain scan photo by shutterstock.

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Brain Scans Show Teen Drinking Impairs Brain Efficiency


Brain Scans Show Teen Drinking Impairs Brain EfficiencyNew research suggests brains scans can identify patterns of brain activity that may predict if a teen will develop into a problem drinker.

The study also confirms that heavy drinking affects a teenagers’ developing brain.

Using special MRI scans, researchers looked at forty 12- to 16-year-olds who had not started drinking yet, then followed them for about three years and scanned them again.

Researchers discovered that half of the teens started to drink alcohol fairly heavily during this interval.

Investigators also found that kids who had initially showed less activation in certain brain areas were at greater risk for becoming heavy drinkers in the next three years.

However, once the teens started drinking, their brain activity looked like the heavy drinkers’ in the other studies — that is, their brains showed more activity as they tried to perform memory tests.

“That’s the opposite of what you’d expect, because their brains should be getting more efficient as they get older,” said lead researcher Lindsay M. Squeglia, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego.

Researchers say an operational definition of heavy drinking typically included episodes of having four or more drinks on an occasion for females and five or more drinks for males.

The findings add to evidence that heavy drinking has consequences for teenagers’ developing brains. But they also add a new layer: There may be brain activity patterns that predict which kids are at increased risk for heavy drinking.

“It’s interesting because it suggests there might be some pre-existing vulnerability,” Squeglia said.

Researchers say they are not advocating for teens to receive MRIs to determine their risk of excessive alcohol consumption. But the findings do give clues into the biological origins of kids’ problem drinking.

Experts say the findings suggest that heavy drinking may affect young people’s brains right at the time when they need to be working efficiently.

“You’re learning to drive, you’re getting ready for college. This is a really important time of your life for cognitive development,” Squeglia said.

She noted that all of the study participants were healthy, well-functioning kids. It’s possible that teens with certain disorders — like depression or ADHD — might show greater effects from heavy drinking.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

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Increased Dopamine Can Reduce Impulsivity


Increased Dopamine Can Reduce ImpulsivityResearchers have discovered that elevating the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the frontal lobe of the brain can significantly decrease impulsivity in healthy adults.

The finding is important as impulsiveness is a risk factor for substance abuse.

“Impulsivity is a risk factor for addiction to many substances, and it has been suggested that people with lower dopamine levels in the frontal cortex tend to be more impulsive,” said lead author Andrew Kayser, Ph.D.

Researchers from the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco performed a double-blinded placebo study. The study has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In the research, 23 adult research participants were given either tolcapone, a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that inhibits a dopamine-degrading enzyme, or a placebo.

Investigators then gave the participants a task that measured impulsivity, asking them to make a hypothetical choice between receiving a smaller amount of money immediately (“smaller sooner”) or a larger amount at a later time (“larger later”).

Each participant was tested twice, once with tolcapone and once with placebo.

More impulse (at baseline) participants were more likely to choose the less impulsive “larger later” option after taking tolcapone than they were after taking the placebo.

Magnetic resonance imaging conducted while the participants were taking the test confirmed that regions of the frontal cortex associated with decision-making were more active in the presence of tolcapone than in the presence of placebo.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to use tolcapone to look for an effect on impulsivity,” said Kayser.

The study is a proof-in-concept investigation and was not designed to investigate the reasons that reduced dopamine is linked with impulsivity.

However, explained Kayser, scientists believe that impulsivity is associated with an imbalance in dopamine between the frontal cortex, which governs executive functions such as cognitive control and self-regulation, and the striatum, which is thought to be involved in the planning and modification of more habitual behaviors.

“Most, if not all, drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and amphetamine, directly or indirectly involve the dopamine system,” said Kayser.

“They tend to increase dopamine in the striatum, which in turn may reward impulsive behavior. In a very simplistic fashion, the striatum is saying ‘go,’ and the frontal cortex is saying ‘stop.’ If you take cocaine, you’re increasing the ‘go’ signal, and the ‘stop’ signal is not adequate to counteract it.”

Kayser and his research team plan a follow-up study of the effects of tolcapone on drinking behavior.

“Once we determine whether drinkers can safely tolerate this medication, we will see if it has any effect on how much they drink while they’re taking it,” said Kayser.

Currently, Tolcapone is approved as a medication for Parkinson’s disease — a disease in which a chronic deficit of dopamine inhibits movement.

Source: University of California – San Francisco

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First Marijuana Use Linked to Psychosis in Vulnerable People


Among individuals with psychosis who are also heavy marijuana users, the age they first used marijuana is strongly linked to the age of their first bout of psychosis, according to a study of 57 patients.

Although marijuana use by itself is neither sufficient nor needed to trigger schizophrenia, “if cannabis use precipitates the onset of psychosis, efforts should be focused on designing interventions to discourage cannabis use in vulnerable individuals,” Dr. Juan A. Galvez-Buccollini and his associates said.

This caution pertains to someone with a first-degree relative with psychosis, which is “the highest risk factor for schizophrenia,” said Dr. Lynn E. Delisi, senior investigator for the study, a psychiatrist at the Boston VA Medical Center in Brockton, Mass., and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

If someone had a first-degree relative, “I would caution them about the consequences of cannabis use and the association with schizophrenia,” she said.

Findings from previous research has shown that marijuana use is associated with an earlier age of psychosis onset in people abusing multiple substances, but studies have not looked at a possible link between the onset of cannabis use itself and resulting psychosis.

Because of this, Dr. Galvez-Buccollini, a psychiatry researcher at VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard, and his colleagues interviewed 57 patients with a current diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, schizophreniform disorder, or psychosis not otherwise specified, who also had a history of heavy cannabis use before the onset of psychosis. They defined heavy cannabis use as 50 or more uses during a one year period.

Average age of the subjects was 25 years with a range of 18-39 years. Of the total, 83 percent were men, and 88 percent were not married. The average age of psychosis onset was 22 years, and the average age for first psychosis-related hospitalization was 23.

Schizophrenia was the most common psychosis (42 percent), followed by schizoaffective disorder (32 percent). The average age of first marijuana use was 15, preceding psychosis onset by an average of 7 years.

During the study period, the prevalence of daily cannabis was 59 percent with another 30 percent reporting use 2-5 days per week, and the remaining 11 percent reporting weekly use. Alcohol abuse was 16 percent and alcohol dependence was 8 percent.

The researchers found a statistically significant link between the age when cannabis use first started and the age when psychosis was first diagnosed. This association was consistent after researchers excluded patients with any diagnosis of alcohol abuse or dependency during their lifetime.

The analysis also showed a strong link between the time a patient first smoked marijuana and their age of first psychosis hospitalization.

Marijuana affects dopamine receptors and can have other neurochemical effects.

“There are two components of cannabis, one that potentiates and another that antagonizes psychotic symptoms,” said Delisi. The balance between these two effects can differ among various strains of cannabis, she added.

Source: Schizophrenia Research

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Behavioral, Cognitive Challenges Define Fetal Alcohol Exposure


Behavioral and Cognitive Challenges Define Fetal Alcohol ExposureNew research suggests the only sign of fetal alcohol exposure may be signs of abnormal intellectual or behavioral development.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have discovered that the facial features classically attributed to fetal alcohol syndrome do not develop in a majority of children.

Rather, nervous system abnormalities in children may manifest as challenged intellect and behavioral development, including language delays, hyperactivity, attention deficits or intellectual delays. Researchers define deficits or abnormalities as functional neurologic impairments.

In the study, authors documented an abnormality in one of these areas in about 44 percent of children whose mothers drank four or more drinks per day during pregnancy.

In contrast, abnormal facial features were present in about 17 percent of alcohol exposed children.

Fetal alcohol syndrome refers to a pattern of birth defects found in children of mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy.

These involve a characteristic pattern of facial abnormalities, growth retardation, and brain damage.

Neurological and physical differences seen in children exposed to alcohol prenatally — but who do not have the full pattern of birth defects seen in fetal alcohol syndrome — are classified as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

“Our concern is that in the absence of the distinctive facial features, health care providers evaluating children with any of these functional neurological impairments might miss their history of fetal alcohol exposure,” said Devon Kuehn, M.D.

“As a result, children might not be referred for appropriate treatment and services.”

The study may be found online in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The research was conducted as part of a long-term study of heavy drinking in pregnancy known as the NICHD–University of Chile Alcohol in Pregnancy Study.

The investigation began by researchers asking over 9000 women at a community health clinic in Santiago, Chile about their alcohol use during pregnancy.

They found 101 pregnant women, who had four or more drinks per day during their pregnancies and matched them with 101 women having similar characteristics but who consumed no alcohol when they were pregnant.

After these women gave birth, the researchers evaluated the infants’ health and conducted regular assessments of their physical, intellectual and emotional development through age 8.

The researchers documented that children exposed to alcohol presented an increased risk of:

  • Abnormal facial features (16 percent);
  • Delayed growth (14 percent);
  • Cognitive delays (including intellectual) (29 percent);
  • Language delays (18 percent);
  • Hyperactivity (25 percent).

Some of the women with heavy drinking habits also engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks at a time). Even though these women already had high levels of alcohol consumption, the researchers found that this habit increased the likelihood of poor outcomes for their children.

Source: NIH/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

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