Alcohol related brain damage and recovery
Studies into the effects of alcohol on the brain have shown that the brain is able to repair itself remarkably quickly after stopping drinking. Research indicates that the impact on the brain’s grey matter, which shrinks from alcohol abuse, begins reversing within two weeks when chronic alcohol abusers become abstinent.
"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 is 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, showing that some alcohol-related brain damage is reversible.
Rapid recovery of the brain from alcohol induced volume loss
"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 alcohol recovery. Our study corroborates previous findings of brain volume reduction for certain brain regions."
The alcohol recovery timeline can be fairly short in certain areas. While different areas of the brain recover at different rates, the initial findings of the study 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 recovery centres work. Currently, alcohol abuse treatment often only covers the first phase of detox. This lasts between a few days to a week. However, for those struggling with addiction, life after alcohol requires an ongoing commitment to maintain sobriety and a healthier way of life. In the short-term, treatment can quickly help to address other effects of alcohol in the brain, such as alcohol brain fog. This refers to issues such as difficulty concentrating, confusion and an inability to think clearly.
The new research shows that it takes at least two weeks for the brain to start returning to normal, so this is the point at which the alcohol recovery timeline begins. 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.