Results from a new study show the brain is able to repair itself remarkably quickly when chronic alcohol abusers become abstinent. The study found that grey matter which had shrunk due to alcohol abuse began returning within two weeks after the patient stopped drinking.
"Shrinkage of brain matter, and an accompanying increase of cerebrospinal fluid, which acts as a cushion or buffer for the brain, are well-known degradations caused by alcohol abuse," explained Gabriele Ende, professor of medical physics in the Department of Neuroimaging at the Central Institute of Mental Health. "This volume loss has previously been associated with neuropsychological deficits such as memory loss, concentration deficits, and increased impulsivity."
The shrinking of any portion of the brain is worrying but the damage done by alcohol is especially concerning because some of the shrinkage is probably due to cell death. Once brain cells die the effect of the brain damage are permanent. Thankfully, some of the changes in the alcoholic brain are due to cells simply changing size in the brain. Once an alcoholic has stopped drinking, these cells return to their normal volume.
"We found evidence for a rather rapid recovery of the brain from alcohol induced volume loss within the initial 14 days of abstinence," said Ende. "Although brain shrinkage as well as a partial recovery with continued abstinence have 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."
While different areas of the brain recover at different rates, the initial findings show that much of the lost functionality in the brain returns quickly. "The function of the cerebellum is motor coordination and fine tuning of motor skills," Ende explained. "Even though we did not access the amelioration of motor deficits in our patients quantitatively, 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. 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."
These findings may drastically alter how many alcohol abuse treatment centres work. Currently, alcohol abuse treatment often only covers the first phase of detox. This lasts between a few days to a week. The new research shows that it takes at least two weeks for the brain to start returning to normal. Until the brain has recovered, it is less able so suppress the urge to drink. This is because the alcohol has impaired the brains cognitive ability. Ende and her colleagues now believe that any proper alcohol abuse treatment should last for a minimum of two weeks.