A new study conducted by the Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante, Spain and the Central Institute of Mental Health Mannheim in Germany, contest the belief that alcohol-induced alterations in the brain begin to normalise immediately after stopping alcohol consumption.

Brain damage resulting from alcohol consumption continues to progress until at least the sixth week of sobriety. “Until now, nobody could believe that in the absence of alcohol the damage in the brain would progress,” said research coordinator Dr Santiago Canals from the Institute of Neurosciences.

The study used MRI to look at the brain of 91 patients with an average age of 46; all with an alcohol-induced disorder. To compare the neuroimages the researches had a control group consisting of 36 healthy men with an average age of 41.

The participants were hospitalised in a detoxification program, where researches could closely monitor the consumption of any addictive substances. As a result, abstinence is guaranteed and it can be followed closely. The period of abstinence is “critical because relapses lead to chronic alcohol consumption,” noted Dr Canals.

Rats and Alcohol Dependence

The research also involves a parallel study with rats with a preference for alcohol. This section of the study “allows to monitor the transition from normal to alcohol dependence in the brain, a process that is not possible to see in humans,” notes the lead author of the research Dr Silvia de Santis, from the Institute of Neurosciences.

The results show that alcohol consumption results in a generalised change in the white matter, which is the set of fibres that connect different parts of the brain. The changes are stronger in the corpus callosum and the fimbria. The corpus callosum is associated with the communication between both hemispheres of the brain. “The fimbria contains the nerve fibres that communicate the hippocampus, a fundamental structure for the formation of memories, with the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex,” explains Dr Canals.

The damaging effects of alcohol in the brain are well known, but there’s still a lack of diagnostics markers to characterise alcohol induce brain damage. The researchers from Spain and Germany are working on this further. They are focusing now on distinguishing the inflammatory and degenerative processes independently and more accurately. The goal is to understand the progression during the early abstinence phase on people with alcohol abuse problems. The beginning of abstinence is a key phase due to the high rate of relapse it represents.

Excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for approximately 3,3 million worldwide deaths annually and is the source of at least 200 diseases. According to AA Netherlands, approximately 4,400 people die annually in The Netherlands due to alcohol misuse and there are at least 300,000 alcoholics.