Chronic alcohol dependence can lead to a medical condition known as Alcohol-Induced Persisting Amnestic Disorder (also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome). This disorder is believed to be caused by deficiencies in thiamine and Vitamin B because their absorption in blocked with habitual alcohol consumption. Individuals afflicted with this disorders experience retrograde (the past) and anterograde (new knowledge) amnesia as well as confabulation, which is the tendency to attempt to compensate for memory loss by fabricating memories.
What are some of the life problems associated with heavy alcohol use?
The pervasive impact of chronic alcohol abuse can be seen across several important areas of in life that generally impair one’s ability to function adaptively (i.e., take care of oneself in a manner appropriate for one’s age) and experience a good quality of life. It is a complex problem in living with psychological, physical, and behavioral components. These include (1) demonstrating a preoccupation with alcohol and drinking; (2) demonstrating emotional problems (e.g., depression); (3) having overt problems at work, within one’s family, and other important social relationships because of alcoholism; and (4) associated physical problems that result from habitual alcohol consumption.
Given that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it shouldn’t be a surprise that depression can become a comorbid (or co-occurring) condition for some individuals. In general, the incidence of depression in substance abusers is quite high. People who drink alcohol heavily to the point of intoxication can experience very strong emotions and are frequently disinhibited (i.e., impulsive). Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and suicidal thoughts often accompany bouts of heavy drinking.
To review the relationship among amount (dosing) of alcohol consumed, blood alcohol levels, and effects on the central nervous system and behavioral performance, check out this five-minute Healthy McGill video here:
Who is at greatest risk for abuse or dependence?
Research has demonstrated that two risk factors can contribute significantly to the manifestation of alcohol abuse and dependence in the individual. The first risk factor is a family history of chronic alcohol abuse. Children of alcoholic parents have a higher statistical risk of becoming alcoholics themselves when compared to children of nonalcoholic parents. Whether this represents an increase genetic or environmental risk, however, is difficult to determine since both are intertwined in such instances. A second and independent risk factor that has been identified is those cases where an individual has a genetic predisposition to have low response to the psychoactive effects of alcohol (and, as a result, requires higher amounts of alcohol to become intoxicated). Individuals with this lower response to alcohol are more likely to abuse alcohol, as they require considerably more drinking to obtain the level of intoxication experienced by others who drink less to get the same effect.
When taken together, an adult child of an alcoholic who also possesses a low response to the effects of alcohol has an even higher statistical chance of developing a pattern of alcoholism. Keep in mind that all of these examples are just risk factors and statistically probabilities – none of these outcomes are written in stone. Further, research demonstrates that there are also protective factors (variables) in the environment that can also help promote resiliency in some individuals and lead them not to drink alcohol in an excessive or maladaptive fashion when they are present. Clearly, again, the path to alcoholism (and responsible drinking and abstinence) is multi-factorial.
What are some of the treatment options for Alcohol Dependence?
Unfortunately, flaws in methodology jeopardize much of the research on the effectiveness of alcohol treatment programs. That is, the studies aren’t well controlled in terms of error variance and it cannot be clearly determined whether the observed changes in the studies are due to the employed treatment or other, uncontrolled, factors during the study. For example, many studies do not use untreated comparison groups. One generalization that can be made from the available research is that formal treatments are not always adequate or even necessary. A positive outcome to treatment appears to be related more to the presence of certain psychosocial factors like specific threats to one’s physical or social well-being (i.e., hitting “rock bottom”) than any particular intervention.
There are, however, some treatments that have had some success. These treatments have several components in common, including covert sensitization and other forms of aversive counterconditioning. Antabuse, for example, is a medication that, when taken, will result in an individual becoming violently ill should they consume alcohol. Other treatments that put together broad-spectrum interventions such as social skills training, learning to drink in moderation, stress management techniques, and teaching coping skills and other self-control techniques help to teach the individual better, healthier alternatives methods when faced with environmental triggers to consuming alcohol.
Many modern programs incorporate aspects of Alcoholics Anonymous and/or the drug Antabuse. However, the effectiveness of these treatments has not been empirically demonstrated. One criticism that has been levied on these treatments is that they do not take into account individual differences and the wide variety of psychosocial problems and/or lack of resources that can make successfully managing alcohol consumption. In general, individuals with severe problems with alcohol require more intensive treatments (e.g., inpatient hospitalization), while those who experience less pathological problems require more periodic, milder interventions.
Another criticism that has been raised about some current treatment programs for alcohol abuse and dependence is that they tend to be based on the belief that failures in treatment are largely due to the individual’s denial of having a problem or otherwise not having an adequate level of motivation. Many therapists have not supported this line of thinking, however. Research on treatment outcome, alternatively, points to the importance of therapist factors such as their level of empathy toward clients and their attitudes about what constitutes healthy recovery as being more related to positive outcomes than client’s own motivation or personality characteristics.
Some experts in the field of alcohol research have emphasized the importance of the clients’ reaction to instances of relapse, especially from a cognitive (how they think) and emotional (how they feel) perspectives. Researchers stress the need to get away from the idea that a relapse represents a “violation of abstinence” which can lead to anxiety, depression, self-blame and an increased likelihood of further alcohol consumption. Alternatively, relapses should be characterized as a mistake that came about from external, controllable factors and not the result of internal factors (e.g., personality characteristics) that are essentially thought to be out of one’s control.
Dually diagnosed individuals (those with a mental illness or personality disorder in addition to a substance abuse disorder) usually have a hard time finding treatment in one place. In many jurisdictions, they have to see a therapist at a mental health center and a separate therapist at a substance abuse center, or they are forced to make a choice of one over the other. You will find that there is often a lack of cross-training between mental health and substance abuse professionals, and that makes it harder for clients to get the treatment they need. Furthermore, in some places, you may find that the treatment support groups for substance abuse have an interpretation of sobriety that prohibits the use of psychotropic medication.