You don’t have to be a drinker for your brain to be affected by alcoholism.
In a new study, researchers found that just having a parent with an alcohol use disorder affects how your brain transitions between active and resting states—regardless of your own drinking habits.
They discovered that the brain reconfigures itself between completing a mentally demanding task and resting.
But for the brain of someone with a family history of an alcohol use disorder, this reconfiguration doesn’t happen.
The missing transition might be related to larger-scale brain functions that give rise to behaviors associated with addiction.
In particular, study subjects without this brain process demonstrated greater impatience in waiting for rewards, a behavior associated with addiction.
The research was conducted by a team at Purdue University and the Indiana University School of Medicine.
The team says how the brain reconfigures between active and resting states is like how a computer closes down a program after you’re finished with it.
The moment you close a program, a computer has to remove it from memory, reorganize the cache and maybe clear out some temporary files. This helps the computer to prepare for the next task.
In a similar way, they found that this reconfiguration process in the human brain is associated with finishing a task and getting ready for what’s next.
Past research has shown that a family history of alcoholism affects a person’s brain anatomy and physiology, but most studies have looked at this effect only in separate active and quiet resting states rather than the transition between them.
In the study, the team defined a “family history of alcoholism” as someone with a parent who had enough symptoms to constitute an alcohol use disorder. About half of the 54 study participants had this history.
The team measured the brain activity of subjects with an MRI scanner as they completed a mentally demanding task on a computer.
The task required them to unpredictably hold back from pressing a left or right key. After completing the task, the subjects rested while watching a fixed point on the screen.
A separate task outside of the MRI scanner gauged how participants responded to rewards, asking questions such as if they would like $20 now or $200 in one year.
The team processed the data and developed a computational framework for extracting different patterns of brain connectivity between completing the mentally demanding task and entering the resting state, such as when brain areas rose and fell together in activity, or one brain area rose while another fell at the same time.
The data revealed that these brain connectivity patterns reconfigured within the first three minutes after finishing the task. By the fourth minute of rest, the effect had completely disappeared.
And it’s not a quiet process: Reconfiguration involves multiple parts of the brain at once.
People lacking the transition also had the risk factors that researchers have seen to be consistent with developing alcoholism.
These include being male, a greater number of symptoms of depression, and reward-impatience.
A family history of alcoholism, however, stood out as the strongest difference in this brain reconfiguration.
The team says this work shows that a person with just a family history of alcoholism may also have some subtle differences in how their brains operate.
One author of the study is Enrico Amico, a former Purdue postdoctoral researcher.
The study is published in NeuroImage.
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