Brain Recovery From Alcoholism Seen After 2 Weeks of Sobriety
Just two weeks of sobriety from chronic alcohol abuse can reverse damage to the brain, according to a new study. However, recovery may vary among different parts of the brain. The findings may offer new hope to those in recovery from alcoholism, say authors of the study. Further results will be published in the issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research on January 2013.
Gabriele Ende, a professor of medical physics in the Department of Neuro-Imaging at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany stated that, "Shrinkage of brain matter and an accompanying increase of cerebrospinal fluid, which acts as a cushion or buffer for the brain. This volume loss has previously been associated with neuropsychological deficits such as memory loss, concentration deficits and increased impulsivity."
"Several processes likely account for changes in brain tissue volume observed through bouts of drinking and abstinence over the course of alcoholism," added Natalie May Zahr, co-author of the study and research scientist at Stanford University School of Medicine in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences. "One process likely reflects true, irreversible neuronal cell death, while another process likely reflects shrinkage, a mechanism that would allow for volume changes in both negative and positive directions, and could account for brain volume recovery with abstinence."
The study examined 49 alcoholics from a residential rehab treatment program - 40 of them were men and nine women. Ende and her colleagues completed this with 55 similar people who were not alcohol dependent. All of the participants underwent a brain scan within 24 hours of detoxification and there was a second scan performed after two weeks of supervised sobriety.
"We found evidence for a rather rapid recovery of the brain from alcohol induced volume loss within the initial 14 days of abstinence," noted Ende. "Although brain shrinkage as well as a partial recovery with continued abstinence has been elaborately described in previous studies, no previous study has looked at the brain immediately at the onset of alcohol withdrawal and short term recovery. Our study corroborates previous findings of brain volume reduction for certain brain regions."
According to this study, drinkers had a volume reduction of the cerebellum during detoxification. "This has rarely been observed in other studies at later time points after alcohol withdrawal," Ende illustrated. "Two weeks after detoxification, this cerebellum reduction was nearly completely ameliorated." Recovery from chronic alcohol abuse was better in some parts of the brain than others.
"The function of the cerebellum is motor coordination and fine-tuning of motor skills," said Ende. While the new study didn't measure recovery of these skills, she said, "it is striking that there is an obvious improvement of motor skills soon after cessation of drinking, which is paralleled by our observation of a rapid volume recovery of the cerebellum."
Ende also added, "Higher cognitive functions like divided attention, which are processed in specific cortical areas, take a longer time to recover and this seems to be mirrored in the observed slower recovery of brain volumes of these areas." The latest answers may have implications for alcohol treatment choices, suggested by the researchers.
Zahr noticed that many alcohol detox programs dealt with the acute withdrawal stage from alcohol, the first three days. "Based on this study and others, suggested that a minimum set of cognitive abilities is necessary to conquer alcohol addiction, clinicians should consider alcohol detox programs that provide support for the recovering alcoholic for a minimum of two weeks."
Ende concurred with Zahr’s findings. "The ultimate goal of alcoholism treatment is the maintenance of abstinence," she said. "To achieve this, the affected person needs to suppress their drinking urges and relearn to value other pleasures. Brain volume loss hinders this difficult process, so rapid volume gain is advantageous for the establishment of sober relearning."
"This study offers recovering alcoholics a sense of hope," expressed Zahr. "Hope that even within two weeks of abstinence, the recovering alcoholic should be able to observe improvements in brain functioning that may allow for better insight and thus ability to remain sober. Indeed, a minimal of brain healing may be necessary before the addict is able to achieve the control necessary to maintain continued abstinence."
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