Alcohol : how the brain recovers during a period of abstinence

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The excessive consumption of alcohol is not without damage on the brain. Many studies have revealed that the volume of brain structures involved in cognition and the learning is reduced dramatically in people who are dependent on alcohol. This decrease is partially reversible after a prolonged shutdown of the intake, but all the regions of the brain do not recover the same way. What are those that have the benefit of stopping the alcohol ?

by Benjamin Rolland, Psychiatrist, Addictologue and Master of the Conferences of the Universities – Hospital Practitioner, Head of the University Department of Addiction of Lyon (SUAL), University Claude Bernard Lyon 1 originally published on The Conversation

 The Conversation

Published February 7, 2019 at 12:37

Summary



Over the past 50 years, alcohol consumption has decreased steadily in France, a decline mainly attributed to the decrease in the consumption of wine. Despite all that, today, still 10 % of French adults are in trouble with alcohol.

The excessive consumption of alcohol is not without damage on the brain. Many studies have revealed that the volume of brain structures involved in cognition and the learning is reduced dramatically in people who are dependent on alcohol. This decrease is partially reversible after a prolonged shutdown of the intake, but all the regions of the brain do not recover the same way. What are those that have the benefit of stopping the alcohol ? And, in the case of those who do not, what are the consequences ?

Alcohol decreases brain volume

Even among drinkers moderate, but regular, an overall reduction of brain volume has been observed. However, it is not definitive : to stop the alcohol, there is a partial recovery of brain volume, which is accompanied by an improvement in cognitive abilities. Many factors influence this recovery : age, gender, genetic factors, the existence of a family history of addiction to alcohol, smoking, etc

The alteration in brain related to alcohol can, itself, influence the behaviors related to addiction ? In other words, can it increase the risk of relapse ? To find out, the first step was to determine what brain regions, among those involved in the addiction, were the most affected by these changes in volume. The team of Timothy Durazzo, and Dieter Meyerhoff, without doubt, the most known authors in the field of structural neuroimaging in the alcoolodépendance, recently pondered the question.

A immediate recovery

The researchers analyzed MRI scans of the brains of 85 people alcoolodépendantes one week, one month and seven months after they have stopped drinking alcohol, and compared the images to the brain of control individuals consuming little or no alcohol, therefore without dependence.

Were regarded as dependent people whose consumption had been more than 204 glasses of alcohol in so-called “standard” (a standard drink is approximately equal to a “ball” of 12 cl of wine or 10 g of ethanol) per month over the last 8 years for men, and 108 glasses during the past 6 years for women. This difference is explained by the fact that men eliminate alcohol more quickly than women, and that the effects of the brain and organic are more important in the latter, at equal dose.

About the differences between the genera, it is interesting to note that if men born between 1891 and 1910 were three times more likely than women born at the same period to have a problematic use of alcohol, this ratio has gradually declined over the course of the XXe century. To the point that today, there is more significant difference between boys and girls born between 1991 and 2000.

In the study, MRI scans revealed that all the regions studied ( anterior cingulate cortex, insula, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex) were altered at the time where the participants were beginning their period of abstinence. After stopping the alcohol, however, the volume of brain structures affected increased again over time, and as soon as the people cease their consumption. The effects of the stop of consumption were indeed detectable within the first week or the first month of the judgment. These recoveries were, however, trajectories are very different in different individuals, some recovering less well than others.

In addition, a structure recovered ever : the hippocampus. But it plays an important role in memorizing, in particular in the formation of new memories.

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