Alcoholism Damages Brain's White Matter, Scans Show

Areas tied to decision-making, such as how much to drink, seem most affected, researchers say

TUESDAY, Nov. 18, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Alcoholism damages white matter throughout the brain and this damage can be detected with brain scans, researchers report.

Heavy drinking may be especially damaging to white matter in the frontal areas of the brain, which can interfere with the impulse control needed to stop drinking, according to the study.

The findings were published in the December online issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The researchers used high-resolution structural magnetic resonance scans to compare the brains of 20 light drinkers and 31 abstinent alcoholics who drank for an average of 25 years and had been sober for about five years.

"There were two key findings to our study," Catherine Brawn Fortier, a neuropsychologist at the VA Boston Healthcare System and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a journal news release.

"First, recovered alcoholics showed reductions in white matter pathways across the entire brain as compared to healthy light drinkers. This means that the pathways that allow the different parts of their brains to communicate efficiently and effectively are disrupted by alcoholism," she explained.

Second, "the more you drink, the greater the damage to key structures of the brain, such as the inferior frontal gyrus, in particular," Fortier said.

"This part of the brain mediates inhibitory control and decision-making, so tragically, it appears that some of the areas of the brain that are most affected by alcohol are important for self-control and judgment, the very things needed to recover from misuse of alcohol," she added.

Terence Keane is a professor of psychiatry and psychology, as well as assistant dean for research at Boston University School of Medicine. He said, "The day-to-day implications of this study are clear: abstinence and light drinking lead to better health and better brain function than heavy drinking."

Keane explained in the news release that "alcoholism leads to many brain-related changes and dysfunction that decreases one's ability to function and to heal."

And, he added, "The longer you misuse alcohol the greater your chances are of permanent damage. So if you or someone you know needs help to reduce drinking, do it now."

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about alcoholism and alcohol abuse.

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