March 16, 2012

Blame It on the Alcohol!

(Ivanhoe Newswire) — One or two beers a day could affect your brain? A new study says alcohol dependent patients have problems transferring or applying their acquired knowledge to new contexts.

Researchers found that chronic and excessive drinking is associated with structural, physiological, and functional changes in multiple regions of the human brain, including the prefrontal cortex, the medial temporal lobe (MTL), as well as structures of the brain's reward system.

"AD individuals often have problems applying the knowledge they acquire during psychotherapy to later prevention of drinking relapses in real life," Martina Rustemeier, a research associate in the department of neuropsychology at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany as well as corresponding author for the study, was quoted saying. "For example, even though AD individuals become quite aware of the negative consequences of drinking such as family problems, as well as the positive consequences of not drinking, they still have difficulties permanently changing their behavior when they are back to their normal lives."

Rustemeier explained that AD patients are taught skills during hospitalization and/or psychotherapy that will help them to cope with daily life problems and difficulties for when they are back at home. They are expected to learn, transfer and apply their coping mechanisms to "life" situations such as dealing with stressful work problems that might have previously caused them to drink. But this "transfer of knowledge" is not always successful.

"By disentangling learning from a positive feedback such as monetary reward, and learning from negative feedback such as no monetary reward," said Rustemeier, "we wanted to examine how AD individuals learn and if they benefit more from positive or negative reinforcers, which could in turn help to find successful reinforcers and therapy methods for AD patients."

Rustemeier and her colleagues gave 24 recently detoxified AD patients (19 men, 5 women) and 20 healthy controls (11 men, 9 women) a feedback-learning task associated with monetary rewards. Learning performance, transfer performance, the individual learning bias (i.e. better learning from positive or negative feedback), and associations among learning variables and alcohol and nicotine consumption patterns, depression, and personality traits were all examined.

Rustemeier noted that while the AD patients did not show a general learning deficit or problems acquiring new information, the patients clearly had difficulties transferring their acquired knowledge into a new context.

"These findings have profound implication for therapeutic interventions, and AD patients should be prepared in advance for such situations," Boris Suchan, a professor in the department of neuropsychology at Ruhr University Bochum, who also applauded the study, was quoted saying. "AD individuals as well as family members should know that every new situation is a new challenge for which they cannot rely automatically on previously acquired information in a flexible way. Maybe this makes it easier to understand at least in part the behavior of AD patients."

"Clinicians and therapists should consider this finding during therapy because it can explain why AD individuals have problems applying learned techniques to prevent drinking relapse outside the clinical setting," Rustemeier was quoted saying. "They have difficulties in permanently changing their behavior. Therefore, to prevent drinking relapses, adequate and successful reinforcers are necessary. In our study, patients showed good learning with monetary rewards, but it is quite possible that transfer would be more successful with other reinforcers."

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, March 2012