The Magnificent, Self-Repairing Brain

Alcohol dependent brains shrink but begin to regenerate volume within days of abstinence

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Brain volumes are smaller in people with alcohol dependence. The good news is that pretty quickly after putting down the bottle, the brain regrows some of that volume.

A recent study took brain scans of 104 alcoholics and non-alcoholics. The study’s findings showed the first two weeks of abstinence are a time of good brain regeneration.

These results mean it's best to eliminate drinking alcohol if you want to think better.

"Alcohol dependence can be cured - call a therapist."

Gabriele Ende, PhD, professor of medical physics at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany, led the investigation.

Previous studies have shown that brain volumes shrink from prolonged alcohol abuse. This study attempted to measure whether brain volume would be repaired within just two weeks of not drinking alcohol.

For the small study, 49 alcohol-dependent patients were given magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans within 24 hours of stopping alcohol consumption, and again after two weeks of no alcohol consumption.

The patients were in a supervised detoxification facility to guarantee alcohol abstinence.

The researchers also did MRIs of 55 non-alcohol-dependent age and gender matched people to compare brain volumes.

Brain volume was measured in gray matter (GM) and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

After 24 hours of not drinking, CSF was larger in alcohol-dependent patients, but GM was still smaller when compared to the healthy patients.

After 2 weeks, there was, “A significant albeit (if only) partial recovery of GM volume,” in alcohol-dependent patients.

Dr. Ende said, “Shrinkage of brain matter and an accompanying increase of CSF, which acts as a cushion or buffer for the brain, are well-known degradations caused by alcohol abuse.”

“This volume loss has previously been associated with neuropsychological deficits such as memory loss, concentration deficits and increased impulsivity.”

Like with the body, the brain is mostly water. GM is 80 percent water and CSF is 99 percent water.

Dr. Ende said, “The ultimate goal of alcoholism treatment is the maintenance of abstinence. To achieve this, the affected person needs to suppress their drinking urges and relearn to value other pleasures.”

“Brain volume loss hinders this difficult process, so a rapid volume gain is advantageous for the establishment of sober relearning.”

Further studies will be necessary to design alcohol treatment programs to take full advantage of the relearning phase, where brain volume regenerates, during the first two weeks of detoxification.

This study was published in October in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Funding was provided by grants from German research foundations: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and Nationales Genomforschungsnetz.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 27, 2012
Last Updated:
October 30, 2012