People in early-stage recovery from alcohol use disorder can struggle to recognize facial expressions of emotion ─particularly anger ─according to a study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. The findings build on mounting evidence that long-term alcohol misuse may impair the brain's ability to process facial emotion. As facial expressions are important for interpersonal and social functioning, this might contribute to the development of interpersonal difficulties, which are common among people with alcohol use disorder and reduce the likelihood of a successful recovery.
Researchers from the Recovery Research Institute in Boston and the University of Florida in Gainesville conducted face identification tasks with two groups of people: previous heavy drinkers with a diagnosed alcohol use disorder who had been abstinent for up to 3 months, and a control group of adults without an alcohol problem. One task, a computer-based 'emotion judgment' task, required participants to discriminate between happy, angry and sad facial expressions of varying emotional intensity. A second task required them to discriminate between male and female faces ('sex judgment' task) with neutral expressions, to ensure that any differences in emotion processing between the two groups were not accounted for by a more general impairment in facial recognition. Participants also completed a standard research questionnaire aimed at capturing interpersonal problems of different types.
In the sex judgment task, participants in the alcohol use disorder and control groups were equally able to differentiate male and female faces. However, in the emotion judgment task, participants in the alcohol use disorder group were (on average) significantly less accurate in discriminating between facial expressions – and specifically in identifying anger.
As expected, interpersonal difficulties were more commonly reported by those in the alcohol use disorder group than in the control group. However, the researchers also found that among those with alcohol use disorder, a higher level of interpersonal problems was associated with a reduced ability to recognize angry faces. Specifically, the interpersonal traits of being overly needy, non-assertive and overly accommodating were shown to be meaningfully related to lower accuracy in identifying anger. Although the underlying reasons for this relationship are unclear, the study provides a foundation for more comprehensive evaluation of emotion processing and its implications for people with alcohol use disorder, and may lead to new targets for behavioral interventions.
Hoffman, L.A. et al. (2019) Neurophysiological and Interpersonal Correlates of Emotional Face Processing in Alcohol Use Disorder. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. doi.org/10.1111/acer.14152.