Can a personality type result in a predisposition towards alcoholism? A new study has found a distinction between two different types of alcoholic brains – the results could transform treatment methods.
Researchers have marked a difference between Type I and Type II alcoholics. The differences could result in better treatment of those suffering from alcohol addiction.
Alcoholism is an illness that is prevalent throughout the entire world. It is one of the most common addictions, and research shows that it has increased in the last decade. With this widespread abuse of alcohol, it has never been more important to develop effective treatments and further studies on this illness.
The most recent study that could truly re-shape the way we see and treat alcohol addiction is the discovery of two types of alcoholic brains. The study was carried out at the University of Eastern Finland, where lead researcher Olli Kärkkäinen, coined the terms of Type I: Anxiety Prone and Type II: Impulsive, in describing the brains of for those who suffer with alcoholism.
The Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse on the Brain
The long-term effects that alcoholism has on the brain varies according to several factors including genetics, type of alcohol, gender, age and many other characteristics. However, across the board, scientists found that alcohol addiction affected the brains of everyone in the study in the following two forms:
1. Levels of Dehydroepiandrosterone: The brains of those suffering from alcoholism tend to have higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone. Dehydroepiandrosterone is a steroid hormone which effects the body’s central nervous system and explains why alcohol addicts, over time, do not get the same feeling of pleasure by drinking the same amount of alcohol. The long-term use of alcohol decreases the intensity of alcohol’s effect on the brain due to the change in this hormone balance.
2. Lower Levels of Serotonin Transporters: The researchers found that the brain of alcohol addicts have decreased levels of serotonin transporters in specific areas, which lead to a variety of behaviours that can manifest as social anxiety.
While these are the two commonalities that the study found between all individuals who struggle with alcoholism, they interestingly also found marked differences in serotonin and how it interacts with the brain, and hence coined the two types: anxiety prone and impulsive.
Type I: The Anxiety Prone Alcohol Addicted Brain
The researchers connected numerous characteristics to the first type of alcohol addiction. Type I alcoholism affects both men and women equally. Those suffering with Type I typically have alcoholism in their family history and are also exposed to environmental factors that play a role in developing an alcohol addiction. These individuals often abuse alcohol after the age of 25, when they have already had years of moderate to heavy drinking. The researchers found that Type I alcoholics were those whose drinking progressed over time while the person exhibited less and less control over drinking habits. However, the researchers also stated that this type of alcoholism ranged from mild to severe. People who exhibit Type I alcoholism are more likely to be ‘high-functioning alcoholics’.
Furthermore, the brain activity of Type I alcoholism is connected with several personality traits. For both Type I and Type II, the researchers looked at three characteristics that are connected to serotonin: harm avoidance, novelty seeking and reward dependence.
Type I brains were described as having ‘high harm avoidance’. Harm avoidance, in terms of personality, manifest in being cautious, pessimistic and apprehensive. In addition, these brains were ‘low novelty seeking’. This means that people with this type were reflective and attentive to detail. And lastly, these individuals were ‘high reward dependent’, which means they are often eager to help others and are sensitive to their social settings.
These three key findings lead researchers to discover that the key personality trait associated with the Type I alcoholic brain is an anxiety prone mind. Therefore, a person with Type I is often someone who is seeking to relieve anxiety through drinking alcohol. Hence, people struggling with Type I alcoholism perceive alcohol as a means to mitigate their fears or anxieties. In other words, Type I alcoholics appear to also be suffering from mental wellness issues such as anxiety and depression; they use alcohol to self-medicate.
Type II: The Impulsive Alcoholic brain
Type II distinguishes from Type I in a variety of ways. First, this type predominately affects men rather than women. The researchers found that the cases of Type II alcoholism were those that had strong ties to one’s genetic make-up—not necessarily any environmental factors. In addition, these individuals developed an alcohol addiction earlier in life, often before age 25. This type is not progressive, which means individuals did not gradually become more and more addicted to alcohol over time, but rather were more or less addicted to alcohol at the onset. There is less of a range from mild to severe and people suffering from Type II almost always fall into the category of a severe alcohol addiction. Another key difference is that those with the Impulsive alcohol brain often have arrests and physical fights associated with their alcohol consumption.
The personality characteristics of people suffering from Type II alcoholism are virtually opposite of those with Type I. The researchers found the brains of Type II had ‘low harm avoidance’ which manifested in confidence and inhibition. Type II was also ‘high novelty seeking’ which meant they were exploratory and spontaneous. And lastly, these individuals had a tendency toward ‘low reward dependence’ which manifested in these people being socially detached and emotionally cool.
With these three key characteristics in mind, the researchers coined the Type II brain as Impulsive. Unlike Type I, they are not trying to mitigate anxiety or self-medicate, they are motivated to consume alcohol as a way of inducing euphoria. Like the first type of alcohol abuse, Type II often comes hand in hand with other mental wellness issues. However, Type II individuals are more likely to suffer from antisocial personality disorder or bipolar disorder; illnesses that are linked to impulsivity.
What this means for Treating Alcohol Addiction
The researchers stated that the key message from their research is not that alcoholism exists in two separate forms. Rather, this study demonstrates that alcoholism is acutely linked to personality traits. The research could explain why some treatments do not always work for everyone. Furthermore, embracing the findings could revolutionise the way that individuals struggling with alcohol addiction receive treatment.
Knowing the motivation and personality traits behind the individual’s alcohol abuse will help professionals treat not only the addiction, but any underlying mental health concerns. Having a customised treatment plan tailored to your specific needs helps to ensure long-term recovery. At The Cabin Hong Kong, we have highly trained addiction therapists who understand the complexity of alcohol addiction. If you or someone you know is battling with alcoholism, contact us today.