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Scientists Examine Brain Images of Alcoholics in Recovery Using Prayer to Reduce Cravingsrecovery 12-steps

Often addiction treatment providers boast their use of “evidence-based treatment,” which often emphasizes the use of a 12-step recovery model of addiction recovery.  And while there is often a chorus of people who claim that the 12-step approach to recovery doesn’t work, scientists at NYU are utilizing MRIs to better understand the brain physiology of alcoholics who utilize prayer while experiencing a craving. Spoiler alert: they’ve found it works!

So what exactly did researchers investigate?  Neuropsychologists at the NYU Langone Medical Center have been studying spirituality in AA members for over 10 years, and this was the next step in investigating a pattern they discovered.  Initial research revealed that many folks who abused alcohol had a significant decrease in their drinking following treatment for alcoholism and some form of a “spiritual experience.” Research also showed that participants in a different study who prayed regularly over the course of four weeks drank significantly less than those who did not pray.  These studies eventually encouraged researchers to look at what physically happens in the brain when alcoholics in recovery are exposed to drinking-related images (which would be considered a “trigger” for many alcoholics) and then either read a newspaper or read an “AA prayer promoting abstinence from alcohol.”  Participants self-rated their craving for alcohol after viewing the images and again after reciting the prayer — and most reported less craving after prayer.

The MRI imaging showed that as alcoholics recited their AA-related prayer, movement and activity occurred in the pre-frontal cortex.  If you’re not a neuropsychologist, no worries! Researchers broke down exactly what that means: these parts of the brain are responsible for attention and emotion.  Dr. Marc Galanter, MD, explains, “This finding suggests that there appears to be an emotional response to alcohol triggers, but that it’s experienced and understood differently when someone has the protection of the AA experience.”

Why do we, as a addiction treatment professionals, think this is important information? Because often we hear whispers that 12-step programs don’t work and a critical perspective is necessary here.  Do all courses of treatment work for every individual? Of course not.  We see this with not just recovering alcoholics and addicts, but also for cancer patients, diabetics and people living with HIV.  As professionals, we know that utilizing the 12-steps is not the same as bussing a rehab to an hour-long AA/NA meeting — that’s just meeting attendance.  But the completion of 12 steps, including the formation of a relationship with a higher power, can and does have a powerful impact on the alcoholic and addict.  Treatment professionals worldwide refer to the first 4 steps of the 12-step programs as “evidence-based treatment” because evidence reveals that this process can produce recovery. BUT can you imagine what would happen if the addict/alcoholic searching recovery actually worked ALL 12-steps? Maybe we could get back to the 75% recovery rate that AA was producing in 1955.

This research supports the idea that using the tools, like prayer, provided by a 12-step program can change the way we think and react to situations that were once incredibly challenging and these tools can be carried into our daily activities.  We look forward to additional research from scientists worldwide who are eager to assist addicts/alcoholics in a life free of substance abuse.

For the complete Science Daily article, please CLICK HERE.

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