09 Oct Study Examines Impact of Alcohol on Associative Learning in Veterans
Veterans returning from a deployment often experience difficulties in reentering normal daily life. Those exposed to any kind of tragic event while deployed may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This disorder can be diagnosed based on a variety of symptoms, but common characteristics include flashbacks, insomnia and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
In addition, many studies have documented the increased level of alcohol-related problems associated with veterans returning from active duty that included deployment to a battle zone. Whether alcohol is used as a way to self-medicate against conditions like PTSD, or if the culture of a division may be associated with alcohol consumption, many veterans experience difficulty regulating their alcohol consumption.
An article published in Basis Online discusses the findings of a study that examined how various factors can work together to cause veterans to struggle in daily life. Mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBIs), PTSD and alcohol use may combine to impact important areas of brain functioning, as documented in the findings (McGlinchey et al., 2014). The article was published as part of Basis Online’s “Special Series on Addiction Among Military Personnel and Veterans.”
The researchers recruited 81 veterans and active duty personnel who had been deployed in either Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were divided between three groups, with PTSD patients in one group, comorbid PTSD and mTBI patients in a second group, and control participants in a third group that had no diagnosis for PTSD or mTBI.
The participants were evaluated through self-report for a lifetime of alcohol consumption measures, including frequency, amount and duration and past-year alcohol behaviors.
The researchers used a classical conditioning task to measure associative learning, cognitive function and memory. This task would give the researchers a picture of the participants’ brain function.
For the task, the researchers paired a tone, or conditioned stimulus, with a puff of air that hit the eye (the unconditioned stimulus). An eye blink naturally results from experiencing the puff of air. After repeated exposure to the tone and then air puff, participants began to blink after the tone but before the air puff is executed, demonstrating evidence through a conditioned response that the brain is associating the tone with the air puff.
The researchers measured the percentage of times that the participants produced a conditioned response to the tone. In delay conditioning trials, the tone and air puff overlapped. In conditioning trials, the tone was followed by a pause and then the air puff occurred. In conditioning trials, the participant must form a memory “trace” of the relationship between the tone and the air puff.
The researchers measured the three different groups’ scores in the blink-conditioning performance task. They also examined the role of alcohol use in the scores.
The three groups all showed similar blink-conditioning performance. In all three groups, however, alcohol use was shown to have an association with impaired delay and trace conditioning. During delay conditioning, a lifetime of alcohol consumption and a lifetime of alcoholic behaviors were negatively associated with scores on conditioned responses. Likewise, in the trace conditioning, a lifetime of alcohol consumption, a lifetime and past-year of alcoholic behaviors were all negatively associated with conditioned-response scores.
The researchers note several factors that could influence the usefulness of the study results. For instance, the study was based on a fairly small sample, which can limit the statistical power of the researchers to detect differences in participants’ performances on the tasks.
In addition, the study was not designed to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between alcohol abuse and associative learning task results. Only an association was demonstrated, and further research is necessary to determine whether there is a causal relationship.
The findings provide insight into how deployment injuries combined with alcohol use could impact the efforts of veterans to reenter daily activities following a deployment. The study results suggest that veterans are able to function in associative learning tasks, but alcohol use greatly impacts the ability to learn an association.
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