Studies find that having an alcoholic in the family can impact the brain activity of other family members, even if they don’t use alcohol themselves.

It is well known that the entire family system is negatively impacted when one or more members of the family are affected by alcoholism. Just like any addiction, alcoholism can cause significant changes in the mental, emotional, and behavioural states of the affected individual that can cause great distress to their loved ones. Emotional or physical outbursts, neglect, apathy, financial struggles, and work or school problems relating to the affected individual can snowball and lead to a landslide of problems for the rest of the family. Relationships can break down, parents can become absent, and legal issues can ensue. But none of this is new information. Countless studies and research demonstrate a connection between the above issues and alcoholism in families.

What is new, however, is information from a recent study carried out by researchers at Purdue University in collaboration with the Indiana School of Medicine. The team of researchers, led by Enrico Amico of the EPFL Switzerland, found that, after observing brain activity in participants, the brain undergoes a reconfiguration between performing a mentally demanding or challenging task and resting.1 Imagine a computer closing a program and deleting its cache files in order to optimise its performance for the next task.

What struck researchers, and adds a new perspective to how we view alcoholism as it relates to the family, was the compelling observation that the ‘reconfiguration’ mentioned above does not happen for a person with a family history of alcoholism.2

Notably, one’s standard of performance of the mentally demanding or challenging task is not affected by the inability to reconfigure. However, this lack of transition between performance and rest may give rise to issues and behaviours that are likened to addictive tendencies.3

Results of the study tell us that the brain’s executive functioning, a major component of which is the ‘switching of neural activity from one brain network to another’4, is negatively impacted by a family history of alcoholism.

How was the study performed?

Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the brain activity of 54 participants was examined while they performed a randomised stop signal task. Following the task, participants rested while looking at a fixed point on the screen.

Outside of the fMRI scan during the stop signal task, participants’ responses to reward based hypothetical questions were observed, one of those questions being whether the participant would prefer an immediate $20 or $200 paid the following year.

Participants who had a history of alcoholism in the family, defined for the purposes of the study as ‘someone with a parent who had enough symptoms to constitute an alcohol disorder’5, made up approximately half of the total number of participants.

The most significant difference between participants who showed greater executive function – the ability to smoothly switch between neural networks – and those who showed less capability to do so, was the presence of a family history of alcoholism.6

More statistical observations in FHA (Family History of Alcoholism) positive participants were being male, exhibiting a greater number of depressive symptoms than those who were FHA negative, and a higher level of reward impatience.

What does this study mean for the future?

It has previously been assumed that a person who does not partake in excessive drinking, and therefore must be free of the health damages associated with such behaviour, is a healthy control participant in a given study. However, the findings from this study highlight how even a person who refrains from excessive drinking may still be neurologically affected by alcoholism in the family, hence there may be previously unknown biases in countless studies. This new information must be taken into account for future studies.

Further research on these observations is required in order to gain a better understanding and improved diagnostic criteria related to the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders.

The study’s findings point to important new approaches in understanding neural differences between those with and without a family history risk for alcohol use disorder’, claims Anita Cservenska, neuroscientist at Oregon State University.7

Reza Momenan, director of the Clinical NeuroImaging Research Core at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) explains that the ability to transition smoothly between performing a demanding task and coming to a state of rest or inactivity is a crucial element of living our daily lives. A smooth transition ‘helps the nervous system remain in a stable equilibrium state needed for survival’8, states Momenan.

Benjamin Fry, psychotherapist and founder of NeuralSolutions, Khiron House, and Get Stable, writes in his book ‘The Invisible Lion’ that many illnesses, both physical and psychological, may often be explained by a dysregulated nervous system.9 Very often we neglect consideration of the nervous system and its functional health when addressing or attempting to diagnose disorders, but as both Fry and Momenan claim, our survival and well-being are impacted when our nervous systems are out of equilibrium.

1 Amico, E., Dzemidzic, M., Oberlin, B., Carron, C., Harezlak, J., Goñi, J. and Kareken, D., 2020. The disengaging brain: Dynamic transitions from cognitive engagement and alcoholism risk. NeuroImage, 209, p.116515.

2 ibid

3 Purdue University. “Alcoholism in the family affects how your brain switches between active and resting states.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 February 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200210133222.htm>

4 Kramer, J., 2020. An Alcoholic Parent Can Affect How A Child’s Brain Switches Tasks. [online] Scientific American. Available at: <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/an-alcoholic-parent-can-affect-how-a-childs-brain-switches-tasks/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

5 Purdue University. “Alcoholism in the family affects how your brain switches between active and resting states.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 February 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200210133222.htm>

6 Amico, E., Dzemidzic, M., Oberlin, B., Carron, C., Harezlak, J., Goñi, J. and Kareken, D., 2020. The disengaging brain: Dynamic transitions from cognitive engagement and alcoholism risk. NeuroImage, 209, p.116515.

7 Kramer, J., 2020. An Alcoholic Parent Can Affect How A Child’s Brain Switches Tasks. [online] Scientific American. Available at: <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/an-alcoholic-parent-can-affect-how-a-childs-brain-switches-tasks/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

8 Kramer, J., 2020. An Alcoholic Parent Can Affect How A Child’s Brain Switches Tasks. [online] Scientific American. Available at: <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/an-alcoholic-parent-can-affect-how-a-childs-brain-switches-tasks/> [Accessed 23 June 2020].

9 Fry, B., 2019. The Invisible Lion: Flatpack Instructions For Life. Independently Published. www.theinvisiblelion.com

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