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Author’s addiction research links science and spirituality

April 24, 2012
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Mediating stress appears to be at core of 12-Step programs’ success

As a physician and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) expert who found himself in treatment for alcoholism, Louis Teresi, MD viewed the prospect of finding recovery through the 12 Steps with considerable skepticism.

Teresi wrote in his new book Hijacking the Brain, “When the treatment center doctor told me that I have an organic brain disease, alcoholism, and that the best-known ‘cure’ was practicing a 12-Step program, I thought he was on drugs.” He added, “I needed a solid scientific explanation for how a spiritual program can arrest an organic brain disease.”

Teresi eventually would conduct exhaustive research into others’ scientific conclusions about why 12-Step programs remain, in his words in the book, “the best-proven methods to achieve sustainable recovery.” The results are mapped out in Hijacking the Brain (AuthorHouse), which Teresi wrote in collaboration with Harry Haroutunian, MD, physician director of the residential treatment program at the Betty Ford Center.

In a recent interview, Teresi and Haroutunian emphasized how stress in humans leads many down a dangerous path of substance misuse, and how stress also exacerbates relapse among those in recovery. The authors in their book cite numerous studies (1,223 references in all, available in full at that document the neurobiological effects of substances and then the mediating effects of the spiritual connection that is brought about through 12-Step participation.

“12-Step programs have consistently suggested a path of recovery that leads people to empathetic socialization, altruism, and concern for other individuals,” says Haroutunian. “Things happen to the brain that are the antithesis to the stress that serves addiction. The lack of stress from this [spiritual] state is a chemical event that works against one’s craving.”

The book cites numerous studies outlining the benefits of 12-Step participation. Effectiveness research includes a review finding that post-treatment participation in a 12-Step program is associated with higher abstinence rates regardless of what type of primary treatment the individual received, as well as a 2009 literature review finding that evidence for Alcoholics Anonymous’s (AA’s) effectiveness was strong for five of six study criteria examined.

Through his recent work, Teresi describes his own evolution from skeptic (Haroutunian refers to licensed professionals such as Teresi as a “particularly hard nut to crack”) to firm believer. In thanking the researchers whose work he studied, Teresi wrote at the book’s conclusion, “Your research and your observations are outstanding, and contributed to the saving of at least one life: mine. I simply connected the dots.”