Drinking alcohol damages the brain

Brain: alcohol continues to have an effect for weeks

Long aftermath: Our brains apparently recover less quickly from the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption than previously thought. As studies show, alcohol-related brain damage does not initially regress even with consistent abstinence. On the contrary: the damage progresses even further - for at least six weeks. According to the researchers, this underscores the importance of long-term abstinence periods.

If you drink too much alcohol, you endanger your health in the long run. Excessive consumption of wine, beer and the like can lead to liver damage, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. The brain also suffers: Alcohol-related damage to the thinking organ often results in deficits in terms of judgment, concentration and memory. This is because alcohol primarily damages the white matter of the brain, which plays an important role in learning processes and memory formation.

Fast recovery from abstinence?

So far, however, it has been the case: Those who consistently practice abstinence can quickly help their thinking organ to perform better again. Alcohol-related damage - so the assumption - usually begins to regress quickly when you stop drinking. But is that really true? Silvia De Santis from the Miguel Hernández de Elche University in Alicante and her colleagues have now investigated this question - with sobering insights.

For their study, the scientists examined 91 male, alcohol-dependent patients and 36 healthy control persons. They wanted to know: How does the brain change when the alcoholics start a withdrawal cure? To find out, they used a special method known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which reveals changes in the microstructure of the white matter.

Progressive damage

The surprising result: Although the test subjects had been completely abstinent in the meantime, their brain showed no signs of recovery even after six weeks. On the contrary: instead of regressing, the damage to the nerve tissue progressed even further. The research team suspects that an inflammatory reaction caused by the alcohol could be responsible.

To make sure that the brain changes observed were actually due to the alcohol, De Santis and her colleagues carried out further studies with rats. “This made it possible to clearly determine the causal connection, which would not have been possible through clinical observations on the patient alone,” explains co-author Wolfgang Sommer from the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim.

Long-term renunciation is important

As expected, the assumption was confirmed. "The animals showed exactly the same brain changes in the MRI as the patients," reports Sommer. The researchers were able to rule out other influencing factors such as smoking, diet or other illnesses and mental impairments.

The animal experiments also revealed something else: damage caused by alcohol consumption may manifest itself earlier than expected. "The comparatively short and rather moderate drinking period of the animals indicates that permanent brain deficits after excessive alcohol consumption can occur much earlier than currently assumed," says Sommer. Overall, the study underlines the importance of long-term abstinence periods in order to prevent permanent damage, the team concluded. (JAMA Psychiatry, 2019; doi: 10.1001 / jamapsychiatry.2019.0318)

Source: Central Institute for Mental Health

April 8, 2019

- Daniela Albat