A recent scientific study has unveiled promising news for individuals recovering from alcohol abuse. Researchers discovered that the brains of those who abstained from alcohol for approximately 7.3 months exhibited significant improvements in brain structure, suggesting a remarkable potential for recovery. This new finding, published in the journal Alcohol, provides hope for people with alcohol use disorders and underscores the importance of sustained abstinence.
Alcohol abuse is a widespread concern globally, and its adverse effects on health are well-documented. Long-term alcohol consumption can lead to cognitive impairment and structural changes in the brain. Prior research has indicated that some brain regions may recover during abstinence from alcohol, but the extent and patterns of recovery have remained unclear. This uncertainty prompted scientists to embark on the current study, aiming to shed light on the brain’s remarkable capacity for self-healing during sobriety.
“There is very limited information in the alcohol use disorder field regarding how human brain structure recovers over longer-term abstinence after treatment,” said study author Timothy C. Durazzo, a clinical neuropsychologist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Our study is the first to demonstrate significant recovery of cortical thickness in multiple regions in those seeking treatment for alcohol use disorder over approximately 6-7 months of abstinence after treatment.”
To investigate the effects of alcohol abstinence, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyze of the brains of individuals who sought treatment for alcohol use disorders. Over the course of 7.3 months of abstinence, the researchers closely examined changes in cortical thickness. Cortical thickness refers to the thickness of the brain’s outer layer, which plays a crucial role in various cognitive functions.
“Cortical thickness is genetically and phenotypically distinct from other structural measures, such as volume and surface area; therefore, assessing changes in cortical thickness with extended abstinence contributes to a better understanding of how the human brain structure recovers with sobriety,” Durazzo explained.
In total, 88 participants with AUD took part in the study. They were carefully selected based on specific criteria, including a diagnosis of current alcohol dependence, consistent alcohol consumption over a significant period, and various exclusion criteria related to other health conditions. Additionally, 45 individuals without a history of alcohol abuse were included as a comparison group.
The most encouraging result was the observation of significant linear recovery in cortical thickness in most brain regions studied. Out of 34 regions analyzed, 26 showed improvements over the 7.3-month abstinence period. This suggests that the brain has the ability to repair and regenerate its structure when alcohol is no longer a factor.
“Sustained abstinence from alcohol after treatment for alcohol use disorder is associated with substantial recovery of neural and non-neural tissue that contributes to the thickness of the human cortex,” Durazzo told PsyPost.
Participants who had consumed more alcohol in the year prior to the study exhibited decreased recovery in particular regions, including the pars orbitalis, pars triangularis, and supramarginal cortices. This suggests that the amount and duration of alcohol consumption may influence the pace of recovery.
In addition, individuals with certain cardiovascular risk factors, collectively referred to as “atherogenic conditions,” experienced less recovery in specific regions, such as the anterior frontal, inferior parietal, and lateral/mesial temporal regions were particularly affected. These conditions are known to affect blood vessel health, and their presence appears to hinder the brain’s healing process during abstinence.
“Those with conditions that promote atherosclerosis, plaque buildup in the arterial system (such as high blood pressure, high blood lipids, diabetes, and cigarette smoking) did not show as much improvement in several cortical regions as the group without atherosclerotic promoting conditions; therefore, it is extremely important to effectively treatment and manage such conditions,” Durazzo said.
While these findings offer hope and insights into brain recovery during alcohol abstinence, the study — like all research — includes some limitations. The study had a relatively small sample size, which may affect the generalizability of the results.
“The sample size at the 6-7 month follow-up assessment was modest,” Durazzo said. “The relationship between the improvements in cortical thickness, psychiatric conditions and symptoms and cognitive function and quality of life measures need to be examined.”
The study, “Regional cortical thickness recovery with extended abstinence after treatment in those with alcohol use disorder“, was authored by Timothy C. Durazzoa, Lauren H. Stephens, and Dieter J. Meyerhoff.