Brain Shrinkage from Alcoholism

White matter in the brain actually reduces in heavy drinkers

(RxWiki News) Alcoholics can have trouble making mental connections due to reductions in white matter in the brain. Each year an alcoholic went without a drink, one percent of white matter grew back.

A recent study looked at brain scans of 42 former alcoholics. Results showed that the brain repaired itself bit by bit once they quit drinking.

"Drink in moderation or not at all!"

Susan Mosher Ruiz, PhD, postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Neuropsychology, and Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD, professor of psychiatry, neurology, anatomy and neurobiology, at Boston University Medical School, led an investigation into long-term alcoholism.

Researchers were looking at the effects of long-term alcoholism on the white matter in the brain. Gender was also taken into account to see whether male and female brains experience damages and/or recovery differently.

White matter is the part of the brain that helps connect neurons. When white matter is damaged, communication between different areas of the brain doesn’t work properly.

Previous studies have shown that people with alcoholism have reduced or shrunk white matter.

For this study, 84 participants were given structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Former alcoholic males made up 21 people in the group, former alcoholic females another 21, and 21 male and 21 female never alcoholics were used as controls.

Each MRI was evaluated for shrunk white matter and compared to years of alcoholism and gender.

Results of the study showed that men and women both lost white matter, but in different areas of the brain, from overdrinking.

White matter did recover after both men and women quit drinking, although at a slightly quicker rate of recovery for women.

Dr. Mosher Ruiz said, “We believe that many of the cognitive and emotional deficits observed in people with chronic alcoholism, including memory problems and flat affect, are related to disconnections that result from a loss of white matter.”

For each year that one of the former alcoholics stayed away from alcohol, their white matter repaired one percent.

Even for heavy drinkers, this study was able to show the difference in damage in white matter for each additional drink per day they consumed.

Some of the female cases showed a 1.5-2 percent loss in white matter per extra drink consumed.

The loss of white matter caused the brain to compensate by releasing cerebrospinal fluid in the brain to take up space and protect the brain.

Dr. Mosher Ruiz said, “These findings preliminarily suggest that restoration and recovery of the brain’s white matter among alcoholics occurs later in abstinence for men than for women.”

“We hope that addiction research in this area can help lead to improved treatment methods that include educating both alcoholic men and women about the harmful effects of excessive drinking and the potential for recovery with sustained abstinence.”

This study was published in June in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Funding for this study was provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Research Service and the Center for Functional Neuroimaging Technologies, no conflicts of interest were reported.

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Review Date: 
August 15, 2012