Alcohol | drug abuse and addiction – sometimes a picture – a SPECT scan – speaks a thousand words. Using SPECT as one component in a clinical evaluation can greatly help with determining effective treatment protocols for alcohol | drug abuse and addiction and other brain disorders.
I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Bradley Johnson, a Psychiatrist working at the Amen Clinics in San Francisco, speak at the Recovery Health Care center in Redwood City last night. Dr. Johnson gave a fascinating presentation on the use of SPECT as a visual tool when diagnosing various disorders of the brain, including alcohol | drug abuse, addiction, brain trauma, ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
As Dr. Johnson explained, the use of SPECT is similar to the use of X-Ray. With an X-Ray, a doctor might see a spot on a patient’s lung. This visual would cause the doctor to order further tests to determine the cause of the spot. A similar process occurs with SPECT. This process can be especially important to create effective treatment plans for alcohol | drug abuse, addiction, mental illness and co-occurring disorders (having a mental illness AND a drug or alcohol abuse or addiction).
SPECT – Alcohol | Drug Abuse – What Does SPECT Measure?
A SPECT scan is a map of brain metabolism. It shows how well the blood is flowing through arteries and veins in the brain. This is important because the brain must have oxygen and glucose to function (oxygen and glucose are carried to the brain through blood). SPECT scans come as surface scans or in 3-D. Either way, a SPECT shows which parts of the brain are working hard and which parts are not working hard enough.
Surface scans, like those below showing the impacts of alcohol | drug abuse, give visual “proof” of these impacts. The areas that appear to be holes in a SPECT show areas of low metabolic activity, low blood flow. They are not areas of lost brain matter, which is the good news. The brain can heal — these holes can be filled in with proper treatment.
Why might this visual evidence help?
SPECT is helpful because each area of the brain is responsible for different brain (and therefore different body and behavioral) activities. A term to describe this is Functional Neuroanatomy and this link will take you to the Amen Clinics descriptions of the various functions that occur in various parts of the brain. These descriptions explain what you see in a SPECT and depending on the area of the brain, what kinds of treatments may help. For example, if there are holes in the pre-frontal cortex (where planning complex cognitive behavior, decision making and moderating social behavior takes place), there is low metabolic activity in that area. To increase the activity, one would want to increase dopamine (one of the brain’s neurotransmitters). This increase is not necessarily with a drug, it can also be done through aerobic exercise, proper nutrition and possibly supplements, to name three.
“Making Addiction Visual,” by Lindsay Conchar and Sun Sentinel, is an incredible illustration using SPECT scans to show impacts on the brain of alcohol | drug abuse that’s progressed to addiction.
Alcohol | Drug Abuse – Healing the Brain
As Dr. Bradley repeatedly pointed out, SPECT scans are not the be all, end all. Rather they are one tool that can be used to help a person better appreciate what’s happening in their brains. For someone who has tried and failed to stop drinking or has been in and out of rehab programs for drug addiction, having a SPECT scan work up can give that person the visual “proof” they need to be open to treatment. The images below, for example, compare a healthy brain on the left with the brain of a man abusing alcohol but not considered an alcoholic on the right. The visual might help the man appreciate why cutting back on his drinking and improving his brain health would make him feel better overall. (It would also insure his drinking does not progress to alcoholism.)
As Dr. Bradley also stated — there is no one or right way to heal the brain from alcohol | drug abuse, addiction or any other brain changer, such as mental illness or brain trauma. Two things that help with overall brain health and healing, however, are aerobic exercise and proper nutrition. Why? Check out these posts:
Easy Nutrition for Thriving in Addiction Recovery
Exercise and the Brain: One Way to Help With Recovery
Other brain healing | brain health activities and treatments, include: chiropractic care, mindfulness activities, yoga, physical therapy. There are also 12-step programs, therapy with an addictions specialist, group meetings, medications for specific mental illnesses or addiction cravings, NAMI programs, spiritual beliefs and practices…. The bottom line: sometimes it just takes a picture to open the mind to trying whatever it takes.