Targeting Glutamate Levels in Brain May Treat Alcohol Addiction and Relapse

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Written by: on 15th February, 2018

An estimated 90% of people who overcome alcohol dependence will relapse at least one time during the four years following addiction treatment. But scientists are saying that future treatments for alcohol addiction may be able to target a brain neurotransmitter called glutamate to reduce relapse rates and help patients stay sober indefinitely.

Glutamate and Its Link to Addiction

alcohol addiction

The new study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Alcohol and Alcoholism was based on previous research that found that sights and sounds associated with alcohol can alter glutamate levels in the brains of alcohol-addicted rats. Glutamate accounts for roughly 50% of all synaptic activity in the brain, and is largely involved in feelings of reward and motivation linked to addiction.

For the study, researchers at Indiana University examined glutamate levels in 35 human test subjects — 17 of whom were diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, and 18 of whom did not have the disorder. Each person was shown a series of photos featuring alcohol and drinking triggers like a glass of beer, along with neutral photos unrelated to alcohol. Using a technology called magnetic resonance spectroscopy, researchers measured concentrations of glutamate in each subject to detect changes in the neurotransmitter after people had been exposed to triggers.

It was found that glutamate levels decreased in those addicted to alcohol and shown alcohol cues, while glutamate levels stayed the same in those without alcohol use disorder. The study authors say these results can pave the way for new alcohol treatments that specifically target glutamate to reduce addiction and relapse rates.

Tips for Preventing Alcohol Relapse

Common triggers for alcohol relapse include stress, environment, and exposure to small amounts of alcohol. For instance, spending time at bars, restaurants, and places where alcohol is easily accessible can cause alcohol relapse, as can having a stressful day at work that leads to self-medication using alcohol. One of the most effective ways to prevent alcohol relapse is to know your triggers, and either manage or avoid them at all costs.

Effective ways to prevent alcohol relapse:

  • Develop “escape plans” for each of your triggers so you know what to do when faced with alcohol.
  • Stay away from enablers and people who encouraged you to drink in the past.
  • Find new healthy ways to manage stress such as deep breathing and exercise.
  • Busy yourself with new activities to fill the time you previously spent drinking.
  • Practice good nutrition to naturally help correct neurotransmitter imbalances that lead to addiction.

If you need help managing triggers and staying sober after going through alcohol detox, addiction treatment centers offer therapies that teach you skills for maintaining long-term sobriety.

Treating Alcohol Relapse at an Alcohol Detox Center

Alcohol detox is only the first stage of alcohol addiction treatment, and helps you overcome physical dependence on alcohol. After detox, you can benefit from multiple therapies that teach you how to stay sober for life.

Alcohol relapse is commonly treated using cognitive-behavioral therapy, 12-step support groups, and medication. CBT helps you identify and improve any negative behaviors and thinking patterns influencing you to drink, while support groups allow you to network with other sober individuals who share their own tips and successes for avoiding relapse. Medications like disulfiram can help you stay sober by producing adverse side effects like vomiting and chest pain when alcohol is consumed.

If you need help overcoming alcohol addiction and avoiding relapse, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-483-2193(Who Answers?) to speak with an addiction specialist about your treatment options. We’ll help you find the nearest alcohol detox center that also offers therapies aimed at helping you achieve lifelong sobriety.