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Abstinence may make the brain grow stronger

  • Chronic alcohol abuse leads to structural brain damage.
  • The damage includes loss of gray matter in the cortex and loss of white matter throughout the brain.
  • The greatest tissue loss occurs in the frontal lobe and cerebellum.
  • Prolonged abstinence from alcohol appears to allow some reversal of structural brain damage.

Substantial research has demonstrated that chronic alcohol abuse leads to structural brain damage, especially to white matter, and primarily in the frontal lobes and cerebellum. Researchers have wanted to know for quite some time to what extent these effects may be reversible with abstinence from alcohol. A study in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research uses quantitative neuroimaging to reveal that prolonged abstinence may lead to partial reversal of structural brain damage, which suggests that brain function can improve with abstinence.

"We wanted to know if abstinence from alcohol reverses the kind of structural and metabolic abnormalities that have been demonstrated by previous studies," said Dieter J. Meyerhoff, associate professor of radiology at the University of California - San Francisco School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "We also wanted to know in what specific brain regions and tissue types (gray or white matter) damage would be reversed with prolonged abstinence."

Meyerhoff, who is based at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and his colleagues compared two groups. One group comprised alcoholics (with an average age of 46 years) who had already undergone treatment for their alcoholism and had been abstinent for an average of two years at the time of study.

The second group comprised individuals who were heavy drinkers at the time of study and had never been treated for their drinking. The current drinkers were matched in drinking severity (average monthly alcohol use over lifetime, and duration of alc
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