Alcohol-induced brain damage could still progress even after one chooses to take the sober path. This is the first study to show that abstinence or sobriety does not prevent alcohol from having harmful effects on our health.
Anyone who drinks is already familiar with some of those effects - depression, memory loss, slurred speech, blurred vision, and euphoria. However, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause long-term damage to the brain. While long-term alcohol consumption has already been linked to mental disorders like anxiety and depression, scientists now link it to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a condition that causes confusion, visual disturbances and amnesia.
Even though previous research claimed damages from alcohol can be rectified after quitting consumption of it, the new study shows that is not true. The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience CSIC-UMH in Alicante, Spain and Central Institute of Mental Health Mannheim in Germany. Researchers wanted to investigate the changes in the brain in people with alcohol use disorder.
For the study, the team examined 90 participants using neuroimaging techniques. Everyone in the group, whose average range was around 46, were hospitalised due to their alcohol addiction. The team also had a controlled group of 36 male participants who did not suffer alcohol use disorder. "An important aspect of the work is that the group of patients participating in our research [is] hospitalised in a detoxification program, and their consumption of addictive substances is controlled, which guarantees that they are not drinking any alcohol. Therefore, the abstinence phase can be followed closely," Dr Santiago Canals, study co-author and coordinator, explains the methods that the team used in the study, told a news portal.
Researchers also studied a model of rats with a preference for alcohol. Lead author of the study Silvia De Santis told a news portal they did so "to monitor the transition from normal to alcohol dependence in the brain, a process that is not possible to see in humans." Upon examination, they found that even after the first six weeks of sobriety, damage to white matter in the brain persisted.
The white matter is an essential component that allows a "rapid and efficient information exchange". It contains myelin, cells and axons.
Study co-author Dr Canals told a news portal: "There is a generalised change in the white matter, that is, in the set of fibres that communicate [with] different parts of the brain. The alterations are more intense in the corpus callosum and the fimbria."
"The corpus callosum is related to the communication between both hemispheres"
"The fimbria contains the nerve fibres that [enable the communication between] the hippocampus, a fundamental structure for the formation of memories, the nucleus accumbens, and the prefrontal cortex." The nucleus accumbens is a vital part of the brain as it enables us to do complex thinking, decision making and planning.
The findings could help researchers develop better treatment options for people recovering from alcohol dependence.
The study's findings were originally published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.