Substance Abusers Unable to Distinguish Negative Emotions

Recognizing the emotions of others is crucial for substance abusers to understand the impact of their behavior and take control of their treatment. This study examined identification of six basic facial emotions in people who regularly use drugs, as compared to non-drug users. The ability to distinguish distinct emotions was mapped to the amount and extent of using multiple drugs also. The findings revealed markedly reduced identification of grief, fright, rage and disgust in multi-substance abusers. Cocaine use, in terms of quantity and how long it was used, was a good indicator of the exact deficits in emotion recognition, specifically fear and anger.

It is common to link compromised emotional expression as a negative effect of drug use on the human nervous system. However, the current study looks into the correct identification of emotional display on another person’s face. As compared to those consuming alcohol, they showed better recognition of emotions. Alcohol consumption leads to exaggerated perception of happiness, rage and disgust and an overestimate of sadness. Intense drug abuse and addiction modifies the understanding of emotions differentially by affecting specific emotional brain centers. In addition, the association of the length and amount of other drugs co-abused was analyzed with the capacity of the individual to distinguish between discrete facial emotions.

* This study was done on two groups of individuals: 65 multi-substance abusers receiving treatment at medical centers for counseling and 30 non-drug using comparison individuals. Information on quantity and duration of drug used was collected from the substance abusers.
* The participants were asked to correctly label six basic emotions displayed across 60 faces employed as stimulus.
* The answers were statistically examined to study behavioral discrepancies.

* Anger, disgust, sorrow and fear were poorly identified by the substance abusers group. When it came to recognizing happiness and surprise, the response of the substance abusers group was not very different from that of the non-drug users.
* The correlation between the amount of drug used and the time period for which it was used, with altered emotion recognition, especially anger, was best understood by studying the effects of cocaine.
* Instances of indifference and years of education had a more pronounced impact on distinguishing emotions.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The influence of education and certain variables like irritability needs further investigation. The major limitation was that the statistical mode of analysis employed for multi-susbtance use did not adjust for frequency of specific drug used. Varied parameters of emotional testing like differential sensitivity, other clinical comparative cohorts and behavioral outcomes need to be assessed, as also other clinical parameters.

The study explicitly showed that moderate multi-substance abusers fared poorer in distinguishing negative emotions such as resentment, sorrow, fear and anger, but are not different from non-drug users in identifying neutral emotions like joy or surprise. Temporary discontinuation of drugs does not help because the effects of loss of emotion recognition are constant. This could lend an explanation to treatment failure and continued hostile behavior. Persistent lack of cognition could increase the risk of relapse in addiction. Aggressive/depressive expressions could particularly be exhibited during craving. Also, failing to recognize risky situations could prove harmful. Deficits in emotional recognition cause severe “interpersonal problems” and “adaptive decision-making.” Ultimately, the drug abuser loses the discretion to decide anything, thus eliminating a critical indicator of relapse diagnosis.

For More Information:
Impact of Severity of Drug Use on Discrete Emotions Recognition in Polysubstance Abusers
Drug and Alcohol Dependence, January 2010
By María José Fernández-Serrano; Óscar Lozano
From the Universidad de Granada, Granada, Spain and Universidad de Huelva, Huelva, Spain

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
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