New Research Adds to Our Understanding that Alcoholism is a Brain Disease, Not a Moral Problem

alcohol and the brain2

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that, “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.”

This study adds to a growing body of data, obtained by using  neuroimaging technology, that suggests that heavy drinking badly  undermines the very brain systems that are necessary to control powerful impulses, including the compelling urge to drink. It also indicates that recovery of these systems can take years to achieve.

The study used high-resolution diffusion magnetic resonance brain scans to compare a group of 20 healthy light drinkers to a group of 31 individuals with a history of alcoholism. Alcoholic subjects  drank heavily for an average of 25 years but they had been abstinent for about five years.

Despite five years of abstinence, the recovering subjects showed  “pronounced reductions in the structural integrity of frontal and superior white matter tracts… that are involved in the brain’s reward system.”  The study’s authors emphasize that the affected networks are “essential for controlling impulsive behavior and stopping drinking”.
Longer and heavier alcohol use was associated with more extensive damage.  In this study, it appeared that recovery of white matter tissue was more likely in drinkers who became abstinent before turning fifty.
It’s important to remember that there are interventions that have been shown to promote neural growth that can be employed to help those in recovery, including psychotherapy, meditation, exercise and SSRI medications.

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