fMRI shows prayer beating back alcohol cravings in the brain

After looking at drinking-related images and then reciting prayers as part of a recent study, 20 long-sober members of Alcoholics Anonymous reported less craving for a drink than when they read irrelevant news or remained passive. Meanwhile, fMRI confirmed the effect, revealing participants’ brains lighting up most during the prayer interim.

The findings were published online in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

Marc Galanter, MD, and colleagues at NYU Langone report that, compared to newspaper reading and passive acceptance of feelings brought about by the tempting images, prayer was associated with less self-reported craving and with increased activation in brain regions associated with attention and emotion.

These included the left-anterior middle frontal gyrus, left superior parietal lobule, bilateral precuneus and bilateral posterior middle temporal gyrus.

Notably, self-reported craving was inversely related to variables that “can be understood to reflect a greater involvement in AA itself across all study conditions,” the authors write, noting that the variables included duration of abstinence and “the number of years since first experiencing spiritual awakening.”

Galanter et al. acknowledge that their findings must be considered preliminary due to the small sample size.

At the same time, the authors point to their study’s basis in AA members’ input during clinical encounters and interviews as a strength, as members in these settings often report praying to ward off cravings and turn off alcohol-related triggers.

Galanter and team state that their approach is further supported “by the positive relationship between subjects’ self-reported level of craving in the prayer state while in the scanner, and their self-reports of craving during the past week. We can therefore consider neural correlates of decreased craving following prayer as a potential proxy for craving management in naturalistic settings.”

The authors note that the prayers used for the study were AA devotions aimed at promoting abstinence.  

In a press release from NYU, Galanter says the findings “open up a new field of inquiry into physiologic changes that may accompany spiritual awakening and perspective changes in AA members and others.”