The findings, published today (18 December 2006) in the online edition of the journal Brain , used sophisticated scanning technology and computer software to measure how brain volume, form and function changed over six to seven weeks of abstinence from alcohol in 15 alcohol dependent patients (ten men, five women).
The researchers from Germany, the UK, Switzerland and Italy measured the patients brain volume at the beginning of the study and again after about 38 days of sobriety, and they found that it had increased by an average of nearly two per cent during this time. In addition, levels of two chemicals, which are indicators for how well the brains nerve cells and nerve sheaths are constituted, rose significantly. The increase of the nerve cell marker correlated with the patients performing better in a test of attention and concentration. Only one patient seemed to continue to lose some brain volume, and this was also the patient who had been an alcoholic for the longest time.
The leader of the research, Dr Andreas Bartsch from the University of Wuerzburg, Germany, said: "The core message from this study is that, for alcoholics, abstinence pays off and enables the brain to regain some substance and to perform better. However, our research also provides evidence that the longer you drink excessively, the more you risk losing this capacity for regeneration. Therefore, alcoholics must not put off the time when they decide to seek help and stop drinking; the sooner they do it, the better."
Dr Bartsch, who is senior neuroradiology resident and head of the structural and functional MR-imaging laboratory of the Department of Neuroradiology at the University of Wuerzburg, said the study was one of the first to be able to integrate data that showed how the brain regained volume and function early on, once alcoholics, who had no complicating factors, had stopped drinking alcohol. It was carried out in collaboration with colleagues from
Contact: Dr. Andreas Bartsch
Oxford University Press