Surveys conducted among long-term Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members indicate that they report few cravings for alcohol. Until now, there has been little understanding of why this occurs, but an NYU Langone Medical Center study recently found that men and women who performed AA prayers after viewing drinking-related photos had fewer cravings than those who did not.
AA members are taught to recite prayers to lower cravings and promote abstinence. During these meditations, participants showed an MRI-supported increase in brain activity in areas linked to emotion and attention, as reported by the study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
“We wanted to determine what is going on in the brain in response to alcohol-craving triggers, such as passing by a bar or experiencing something upsetting, when long-term AA members are exposed to them,” says Marc Galanter, MD, senior author and Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse at NYU Langone. “Craving is diminished in long-term AA members compared to patients who have stopped drinking for some period of time but are more vulnerable to relapse.”
AA Craving Study Details
The NYU Langone study involved 20 long-time AA members who did not report cravings during the week before they were tested. During the study:
- Participants were placed in an MRI machine and shown images of alcohol or pictures of people drinking.
- Photos were shown twice: (1) After the participant read a neutral newspaper article, and (2) after he or she recited an abstinence-promoting AA prayer.
- All men and women reported some degree of craving after seeing the alcohol images, but the cravings were reduced after the recitation of an AA prayer.
- MRI imaging found changes in parts of the brain that control emotion and attention (prefrontal cortex). “This finding suggests that there appears to be an emotional response to alcohol triggers, but that it’s experienced and understood differently when someone has the protection of the AA experience,” said Galanter. “Our findings suggest that the experience of AA over the years had left these members with an innate ability to use the AA experience—prayer in this case—to minimize the effect of alcohol triggers in producing cravings.”
- As a side note, research participants asked to pray regularly for four weeks (unrelated to drinking) drank about 50% less than those who were not.
AA Prayers Reduce Cravings in Recovering Alcoholics
Galanter has studied the role of spirituality in AA members for over 10 years and has discovered that, over time, AA participants report fewer alcohol cravings. This is thought to correlate with the “spiritual awakening” they experience during their time with Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Our current findings open up a new field of inquiry into physiological changes that may accompany spiritual awakening and perspective changes in AA members and others,” Galanter said.
*Source: NYU Langone Medical Center study supported by John Templeton Foundation grant.
Co-Authors: Zoran Josipovic, PhD, Helen Dermatis, PhD (NYU Langone); Jochen Weber (Columbia University), and Mary Alice Millard (formerly of NYU Langone).