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Alcohol-induced brain damage continues even after quitting drinking

A study from the Institute of Neurosciences CSIC-UMH is providing new evidence that the brain damage caused by alcohol consumption continues to progress during abstinence. Even after individuals had quit drinking alcohol for six weeks, the researchers observed alcohol-induced changes in the white matter of the brain.

The structural brain changes associated with alcohol are known to be wide-ranging, but the diagnostic markers which characterize changes during abstinence are not fully understood. For the current study, the team used magnetic resonance imaging on patients at a German hospital.

Dr. Santiago Canals, who coordinated the research, said the results are surprising. “Until now, nobody could believe that in the absence of alcohol the damage in the brain would progress.”

The investigation was focused on 90 patients with an average age of 46, who were hospitalized for an alcohol use disorder. To compare the brain images, 36 healthy men with an average age of 41 were used as a control group.

“An important aspect of the work is that the group of patients participating in our research are hospitalized in a detoxification program, and their consumption of addictive substances is controlled, which guarantees that they are not drinking any alcohol,” noted Dr. Canals. “Therefore, the abstinence phase can be followed closely.”

“Another differential characteristic of this study is that it has been carried out in parallel in a model with Marchigian Sardinian rats with preference for alcohol, which allows to monitor the transition from normal to alcohol dependence in the brain, a process that is not possible to see in humans,” explained study first author Dr. Silvia de Santis.

The damage observed during the first weeks of abstinence was primarily located in the right hemisphere and the frontal area of the brain. The findings contradict the theory that the structural alterations associated with alcohol begin to immediately return to their previous state with abstinence.

“There is a generalized change in the white matter, that is, in the set of fibers that communicate different parts of the brain,” explained Dr. Canals. “The alterations are more intense in the corpus callosum and the fimbria. The corpus callosum is related to the communication between both hemispheres. The fimbria contains the nerve fibers that communicate the hippocampus, a fundamental structure for the formation of memories, the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex.”

The researchers will now try to characterize the inflammatory and degenerative processes more precisely in an effort to better understand the progression of alcohol-induced damage during the early abstinence phase.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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