While there is no cure for drug and alcohol addiction, at least none that work for everyone, members of 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), seem to have found the key to living life without the use of alcohol as a crutch. Some people scoff at the idea that spirituality has anything to do with it, but many attribute their sobriety to exactly that.

"Spirituality really is putting all the work people do in AA into practice," Peter N., who has 27 years in AA, told Medical Daily. "It changes their outlook on material things and moves it more toward humility and gratitude, which is is found in Christianity, Buddhism, and any other religion. Spirituality is also carrying that message to other addicts and giving them the tools to face the problems and calamities addicts couldn't handle while drinking or using drugs."

Researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center have concluded a study examining the brain scans of AA members. Their findings show that it is, in fact, the prayer aspect of this faith-based fellowship that has lead to so much success among many of its members.

"Our findings suggest that the experience of AA over the years had left these members with an innate ability to use the AA experience — prayer in this case ― to minimize the effect of alcohol triggers in producing craving," said senior author Dr. Marc Galanter, in a statement. "Craving is diminished in long-term AA members compared to patients who have stopped drinking for some period of time but are more vulnerable to relapse."

Galanter and his colleagues recruited 20 long-term AA members who reported no alcohol cravings in the week leading up to the study. On two different occasions, each participant sat in an MRI scanner and were shown pictures of alcoholic drinks and people drinking alcohol. They saw first set of pictures after they read a newspaper. The second they saw after reading prayers from Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book.

Every participant reported some degree of cravings for alcohol after reading a newspaper and looking at the pictures. However, those cravings were significantly diminished after reciting an AA prayer. In these sessions, the research team identified changes in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that controls attention. They also noticed differences in areas that control emotion.

"We wanted to determine what is going on in the brain in response to alcohol-craving triggers, such as passing by a bar or experiencing something upsetting, when long-term AA members are exposed to them," Galanter explained. "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."

Galanter’s research team has studied the role of spirituality in the lives of AA members for the past 10 years. Data has shown that long-term members undergo a transition, commonly referred to as a spiritual awakening, that leads to a significant reduction in cravings. This transition is marked by a change in attitude toward drinking.

"Our current findings open up a new field of inquiry into physiologic changes that may accompany spiritual awakening and perspective changes in AA members and others," added Galanter.

The success seen with 12-step programs like AA has also been attributed to their traditional face-to-face setup as opposed to more modern approaches that are web-based. Researchers from Fielding Graduate University recently decided to compare the effectiveness of in-person versus online sobriety support networks.

Although researchers noticed a decline in face-to-face meetings that was accompanied by an increase in online support group numbers over the course of the year-long study, participants in online groups were more likely to lie about their sobriety and be drunk or high during meetings. Participants who met in-person more than online had greater success with achieving and maintaining sobriety.

Source: Millard M, Weber J, Dermatis H, Josipovic Z, Galanter M. An Initial fMRI Study on Neural Correlates of Prayer in Members of Alcoholics Anonymous. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. 2016.