Distinct patterns of brain activity are associated with greater rates of relapse among alcohol-dependent patients in early recovery, a study finds.

The study, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), used brain scans to investigate neural activity, and found that for people in early recovery for alcoholism, certain areas of the prefrontal cortex were hyperactive during relaxing activity. Patients with hyperactivity in the prefrontal cortex were eight times more likely to relapse than alcohol-dependent patients with normal activity, or as compared with healthy control subjects.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating emotions, the ability to suppress urges, and decision-making. Chronic drinking may damage self-control areas, making relapse more likely.

"Reducing the high rate of relapse among people treated for alcohol dependence is a fundamental research issue," said Kenneth Warren, acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of NIH. "Improving our understanding of the neural mechanisms that underlie relapse will help us identify susceptible individuals and could inform the development of other prevention strategies."

"The patterns of brain activity we observed may one day serve as a neural marker that could help clinicians identify alcohol-dependent patients in recovery who are most at risk of relapse," said Rajita Sinha, the study's senior author, who is Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry and Professor in the Child Study Center and of Neurobiology at Yale University.

"Our findings may also have implications for the use of medications and behavioral treatments that restore prefrontal function, as they could potentially benefit people at high risk of relapse," Sinha said.

Find out more about the science of alcohol dependency and prevention at the NIAAA website.