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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

NIAAA Spectrum: Brain Scans Reveal Heavy Drinking Damages White Matter

Research Update

Research Date

Researchers led by Catherine Fortier at Harvard Medical School found that chronic alcohol misuse damaged white matter in areas of the brain that are important for self-control and recovery from alcoholism. The findings appeared in the December 2014 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Using high-resolution diffusion magnetic resonance brain scans, the researchers compared a group of 20 healthy light drinkers to a group of 31 individuals with a history of alcoholism. The recovering alcoholics drank heavily for an average of 25 years and had been sober for about five years.

Compared with the light drinkers, the abstinent alcoholics showed pronounced reductions in the structural integrity of frontal and superior white matter tracts. According to the authors, the results suggest altered connectivity in frontostriatal circuits—pathways associated with the amygdala, hippocampus, nucleus accumbens, regions that are involved in the brain’s reward system. These networks are essential for controlling impulsive behavior and stopping drinking.

The study also found that longer and heavier alcohol abuse was associated with greater damage. The findings pointed to possible recovery of white matter tissue in drinkers who became abstinent before they turned 50 years of age. 

The authors recommend that future investigations should continue to explore white matter changes due to alcohol misuse, including measurements related to the severity of alcoholism and questions about tissue recovery with maintained abstinence.

Brain images








Image Caption: Brain images from the study; used with permission. Credit: Dr. Catherine Fortier, Harvard Medical School.

Adapted from the story published in the NIAAA Spectrum, February 2015, Volume 7, Issue 1.



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