MASSACHUSETTS, United States, Monday December 1, 2014 – In a cruel twist of fate, it appears that some of the parts of the brain that are important for self-control and judgement – the very things needed to halt the abuse of alcohol – are the very areas that receive significant damage in heavy drinkers.
The findings of a new study, published in the December online issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, indicate that heavy drinking may be especially damaging to white matter in the frontal areas of the brain, which can interfere with the impulse control needed to stop drinking.
The damage inflicted on white matter throughout the brain by heavy drinking can be detected with brain scans, researchers reported.
The scientists used high-resolution structural magnetic resonance scans to compare the brains of 20 light drinkers with 31 abstinent alcoholics who had been sober for about five years after drinking for an average of 25 years.
According to Catherine Brawn Fortier, a neuropsychologist at the VA Boston Healthcare System and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, there were two key findings to the study.
“First, recovered [abstinent] alcoholics showed reductions in white matter pathways across the entire brain as compared to healthy light drinkers. This means that the pathways that allow the different parts of their brains to communicate efficiently and effectively are disrupted by alcoholism,” Fortier explained.
“Second, the more you drink, the greater the damage to key structures of the brain, such as the inferior frontal gyrus, in particular,” she said.
“This part of the brain mediates inhibitory control and decision-making, so tragically, it appears that some of the areas of the brain that are most affected by alcohol are important for self-control and judgment, the very things needed to recover from misuse of alcohol,” she added.
According to Terence Keane, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, as well as assistant dean for research at Boston University School of Medicine: “The day-to-day implications of this study are clear: abstinence and light drinking lead to better health and better brain function than heavy drinking.”
“Alcoholism leads to many brain-related changes and dysfunction that decreases one’s ability to function and to heal,” Keane explained in the news release.
“The longer you misuse alcohol the greater your chances are of permanent damage. So if you or someone you know needs help to reduce drinking, do it now,” he urged.