New evidence from Chinese scientists indicates that loss of grey matter in certain key brain areas may substantially account for the impaired functional abilities of people affected by alcoholism.
Chronic, excessive alcohol intake is associated with a number of brain-based conditions that can seriously degrade critically important aspects of brain and body health. In a study review published in June 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from China’s Affiliated Yancheng Hospital of Southeast University looked for evidence of grey matter loss inside the brains of people dealing with alcoholism (alcohol dependence). These researchers found significant indications of grey matter loss and believe that the observed brain changes may help explain some of the key impairments found in people addicted to alcohol.
Researchers and doctors use the term grey matter to refer to the bodies of cells in the brain that actively communicate with one another and form the control network that makes the brain the seat of consciousness and that powers the basic processes that keep us alive and functional. These cells get their name because they have a pink-grey color in their healthy, alive state. There is also grey matter in the spinal cord, which forms the central nervous system in conjunction with the brain. Grey matter appears in the deep, relatively ancient and primitive segments of the brain that drive most of the body’s automatic processes. It also forms the vast bulk of the cerebral cortex, which contains the structures responsible for controlling the voluntary higher-level mental functions that largely distinguish humans from the Earth’s other animal species.
Another type of brain material, called white matter, acts as the counterpart to grey matter. Essentially, white matter contains the hardened trunk lines that carry traffic back and forth between grey matter located in various parts of the brain. In order to function properly, the brain requires healthy grey matter and healthy white matter. Loss or damage of these materials can significantly alter the viability of essentially any organ or organ system.
Alcohol and Brain Damage
Researchers and doctors often use the term alcohol-related brain injury (ARBI) to describe alcohol’s damaging effects on brain health. Sources of this form of injury include the direct toxic effects of alcohol on the brain and spinal cord, alcohol-related changes in the body’s ability to absorb a key nutrient for brain maintenance called vitamin B1 or thiamine, alcohol-related changes in the body’s heart and blood vessel function and accidental injuries directly or indirectly related to alcohol intake. ARBIs most commonly appear in people with a prolonged history of excessive drinking, although even a single session of heavy drinking can seriously damage the brain. Specific brain and body ailments associated with alcohol-related brain injury include a progressive brain illness called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, nerve damage in the upper or lower extremities, a liver-based condition called hepatic encephalopathy and reduced function in the cerebral cortex or another brain area responsible for controlling and coordinating muscle function.
Alcoholism and Grey Matter Loss
In the study review published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers analyzed the previous results of nine studies conducted between 2000 and 2014 that compared the brain health of people with alcoholism to the brain health of people unaffected by problem drinking. A total of 296 individuals dealing with an alcohol addiction took part in these studies, as well as 359 generally healthy individuals acting as counterparts for study purposes.
After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that people with alcoholism lose substantial amounts of grey matter in several sections of the cerebral cortex. The areas under consideration are responsible for crucial higher-level mental functions that include the ability to think logically, the ability to control emotional volatility, the ability to limit impulsive or reckless behavior, the ability to make situation-appropriate decisions, the ability learn from rewarding or damaging experiences and the ability to make or recall memories.
The study’s authors believe they are the first group of researchers to make a multi-study, whole-brain analysis of the grey matter loss found in people affected by alcoholism. Their findings indicate that alcohol addiction is accompanied by a telltale pattern of grey matter shrinkage that largely centers on areas responsible for maintaining higher-level mental function. In turn, they believe that the observed loss of active brain cells may account for some of the characteristic impairments linked to alcoholism.