New research conducted on mice indicates that the cessation of even moderate drinking may lead to the experience of depression in the days and weeks ahead. According to this article, mice were provided with a moderate amount of alcohol on a daily basis for 28 days. Researchers then discontinued providing the mice with alcohol. Fourteen days after the discontinuation, the mice were displaying behaviors that correlate with depressed mood in humans. From the article:
"Our research in an animal model establishes a causal link between abstinence from alcohol drinking and depression," said study senior author Clyde W. Hodge, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and pharmacology in the UNC School of Medicine. "In mice that voluntarily drank alcohol for 28 days, depression-like behavior was evident 14 days after termination of alcohol drinking. This suggests that people who stop drinking may experience negative mood states days or weeks after the alcohol has cleared their systems,"
The article also indicates that researchers determined in association between the period of time when the depression was present, and the discontinuation of the formation of neurons in an area the brain known as the hippocampus. This discontinuation of neural formation has also been associated with mood difficulties in people. Interestingly, the researchers found that administering antidepressant medication insulated the brain from this discontinuation, and also prevented the onset of the depressive symptoms.
What I find interesting about this particular bit of research is that moderate drinking has been associated with a number of different functional benefits. It appears that the discontinuation of moderate drinking may be experienced negatively. I wonder if this is a physiological response designed to encourage people to re-engage in moderate drinking? Certainly, an experience of depressed mood following a discontinuation of any behavior, including moderate drinking, would be experienced as a punishment, behaviorally speaking. What would be interesting to know is how soon after an individual starts to drink again do they experience an improvement in mood.
From a clinical perspective, it is always extremely important when working with an individual who was attempting to reduce and/or stop their alcohol consumption as part of her treatment to prepare that individual for the increase in negative mood and negative physical response. Individuals who are either alcoholic or engage in problem drinking often assume, erroneously, that upon discontinuing their alcohol use they will immediately experience an improvement in how they think and feel. This is generally not the case. People who discontinue alcohol use (or other drug use) will often feel worse before they feel better. They often do not expect the increase in difficulties they experience, and this will often lead to relapse. Explaining this to an individual beforehand, and helping them work through it, provides a much greater chance for treatment to be effective. I suppose the findings of the research cited above is consistent with the experiences of individuals attempting to discontinue alcohol abuse. This makes it even more important to accurately assess a client’s alcohol use, in order to determine whether an intervention regarding his/her alcohol use is warranted. This would appear to be especially true if the other issue requiring treatment his depression. If so, the clinician needs to be aware that there may be an increase in depressive symptomatology that is related to the decrease in alcohol consumption, and not necessarily confuse this increase with any other issues, including a failure of the treatment intervention.