Alcoholism Has Wide-Ranging Effects on Brain, MRIs Show

Scientists have known for a long time that chronic alcohol use can and will damage the human brain, but the latest data show that alcoholics suffer neurological damage that is even more decisive and severe than had previously been suspected.

Post-mortem examinations of the brains of alcoholics have yielded much useful information over the years, and that has helped fill textbooks on the subject. However, as medical technology has advanced, it has become easier for researchers to examine the brains of living alcoholics, tracking and recording changes relating to their alcohol consumption.

If not stopped in time, alcohol dependency can cause widespread brain damage and deterioration of function; this is a well-known fact. But thanks to sophisticated scanning technology, medical researchers have been able to fill in the blanks in some of the places where uncertainty and speculation formerly ruled the day.

Wasted Bodies, Wasted Minds, Wasted Lives: Tragic Legacy of Alcoholism

Typifying the findings of modern research efforts are the results of a study recently published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. A team of Massachusetts-based neuroscientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to examine the brains of light drinkers and recovering alcoholics in order to make comparisons that could help them understand the true effects of long-term heavy alcohol consumption. In total, 31 recovering alcoholics were recruited to undergo brain scans; on average, the members of this group had been active drinkers for 25 years and sober for five.

The MRI scans revealed two significant findings. First, long-term alcoholics showed clear deterioration in the density and structural integrity of their neural pathways. These networks of elongated brain cells facilitate communication between separate areas of the brain, allowing for efficient whole-brain coordination and control of mental activity. The material that makes up these pathways is known as white matter and is distinct from the grey matter that comprises the bulk of the brain’s mass.

Much of the damage was found in neural pathways that extend outward from the frontal lobe area. These vitally important connective tissues help govern a person’s evaluations and enhance one’s ability to make sensible, well-thought-out choices. As explained by Dr. Catherine Brawn Fortier, assistant professor of neuropsychology at Harvard University and one of the study’s lead authors:

“These pathways support self-monitoring, planning, judgment and reasoning. Frontal pathways also allow flexibility in learning and memory and allow us to change and learn new patterns of behavior. Most importantly, frontal pathways underlie impulse control, which is essential to achieve and maintain abstinence.”

These neural pathways are in full operation as we try to keep our thinking focused on long-term goals, but when they are not working properly it gives our impulsive side free rein to make spur-of-the-moment decisions that may not be in our best interest.

In addition to white matter damage, the MRIs performed on the recovering alcoholics also revealed a loss of grey matter in a part of the brain called the inferior frontal gyrus. Like the frontal neural pathways, the frontal gyrus helps maintain inhibitions and is also involved in decision-making processes, so a decline in functionality here would likely intensify some of the problems caused by white matter deterioration.

What all of this means is that alcohol abuse tends to be self-reinforcing, in the sense that it undermines the ability of alcoholics to think ahead and resist the temptation to drink as they battle to overcome their dependency. This is a major aspect of the physiology and biology of addiction and helps explain the iron grip alcoholism is able to gain over its victims.

Without Treatment, Alcoholism Means Permanent Brain Damage

One bit of good news to emerge from this study is the discovery that recovering alcoholics can regain some of their lost brain capacity over time, particularly that associated with damage to the inferior frontal gyrus. When recovering alcoholics are able to remain sober for an extended period, lost tissue will gradually regenerate in this area, thereby enhancing an alcoholic’s ability to stay on the straight- and-narrow and focused on the task at hand.

But there is a caveat: this phenomenon was seen only in alcoholics who stopped drinking before the age of 50. When heavy alcohol consumption passes this threshold, the damage it does is irreversible, making 50 something of a cut-off line for alcoholics who hope to put the effects of their alcohol abuse entirely behind them.

Of course this does not imply that sobriety at advanced ages has no benefits, because it has many. But it does mean that the neurological deterioration caused by excessive alcohol use can become permanent, and those who let their drinking go on for too long will never be the same as they were before, even if they eventually find sobriety. The longer a drinking problem continues, the more damage it will do; that is an inescapable fact and a reality all alcoholics must accept as they plan their lives and look toward the future.

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