Psychology ETDs

Publication Date

Summer 7-14-2021


Objective: Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a common, chronically relapsing condition with substantial health and economic costs. United States federal agencies have put out calls in the last decade to expand the scientific evidence base for broad biopsychosocial recovery from AUD and other substance use disorders (SUD). The present study examined the role of physical activity and exercise in early recovery from AUD, with specific attention to changes in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) as a marker of neuroplasticity and a potential mechanism for instantiation of recovery-aligned behaviors. Method: Individuals in the first year of recovery from AUD were recruited into a 12-week study with exercise sessions and pre/post-exercise blood sample collection performed in a laboratory setting at baseline, 6 weeks, and 12 weeks. Data analyses included BDNF enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) to establish pre/post-exercise BDNF concentrations, estimation of the magnitude of the effect of exercise on BDNF, and prospective associations of exercise-induced BDNF change with coping, craving, consumption and mood outcome measures. Results: 26 participants were screened, 22 were eligible, 7 had entered the study, and 6 had provided at least one set of pre/post-exercise blood samples when student research ceased on March 23rd, 2020 due to COVID-19 precautions. Participants with at least one set of pre/post-exercise blood samples demonstrated a statistically significant (p=.014) increase from baseline in BDNF levels after exercise, with a large effect size (Cohen’s d=1.519; Hedges’ g=1.019 ). The impact of this increase from baseline on subsequent measures of coping, craving, mood, and substance use is unclear due to lack of statistical power. Conclusions: This study is the first to demonstrate that individuals recovering from AUD can increase serum levels of BDNF from baseline levels via sessions of physical exercise.

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Level of Degree


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First Committee Member (Chair)

Barbara McCrady, PhD

Second Committee Member

Katie Witkiewitz, PhD

Third Committee Member

Christine Mermier, PhD

Fourth Committee Member

Derek Hamilton, PhD




alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, recovery, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, physical activity, exercise

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Psychology Commons