Brain Recovery After Being Alcohol-Free

New cells can develop for years after quitting alcohol

Brain and nerve cell, illustration

When people who drink alcohol heavily stop drinking, some of the brain damage that long-time alcohol use can cause may reverse and some memory loss they may experience may stop.

Scientists have established that the "shrinkage" that alcohol can cause in some regions of the brain that results in cognitive damage will begin to reverse when alcohol stays out of the body for lengthening periods of time.

To understand this important news for people recovering from alcoholism, it is key to understand how alcohol affects the brain.

Impact of Alcohol on the Brain

Doctors and researchers sometimes use the term alcohol-related brain impairment to refer to the damaging impact that repeated excessive alcohol consumption can have on the brain’s ability to function. Some of this impact stems directly from alcohol’s poisonous effects on the brain and the associated spinal cord.

Areas of the brain most likely to be damaged by alcoholism include the frontal lobe—responsible for higher-level mental skills as the ability to think logically and the ability to exert behavioral control—and the cerebellum, which gives the brain its ability to control and coordinate muscle movements.

Using MRI Testing to Track Brain Recovery

In the study published in 2015 in Addiction Biology, researchers from the San Francisco VA Medical Center and UC San Francisco used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to examine the brains of a group of people who were recovering from alcoholism and abstaining from alcohol.

Each study participant underwent MRI testing after being alcohol-free—for one week, one month and seven and a half months. The researchers conducted multiple scans to track the changing state of the brain over time.

The researchers concluded that those who successfully avoided drinking experienced significant increases in the volume of several key brain areas, including the frontal lobe and the cerebellum. These increases appeared in both the gray brain matter that contains active nerve cells and the white brain matter that helps pass the signals between the active nerve cells.

When the researchers studied the positive changes in gray matter volume, they concluded that most of these changes occurred in the three-week span between the end of the first week of abstinence and the end of the first month of abstinence. The positive changes in white matter volume occurred at a fairly consistent pace throughout the seven and a half months of abstinence.

Birth of New Brain Cells

Earlier research conducted in 2004 on lab rats at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies was the first to show a burst of new brain cell development as a result of abstinence from chronic alcohol consumption.

The Bowles research team examined the brain cell growth in adult rats that were given an amount of alcohol over a four-day period that produced alcohol dependence. The researchers found that alcohol dependency slowed neurogenesis or brain cell development.

Also, the research team found that within four to five weeks of alcohol abstinence, a pronounced increase in new cell growth took place in another structure of the brain, the hippocampus, which included a "twofold burst" in brain cell growth on the seventh day of being alcohol-free.

Number of Brain Cells Can Continue to Grow as an Adult

It was long thought that the number of neurons in the adult brain was established early in life, but recent studies have found that the adult human brain can produce new brain cells throughout life forming hundreds of thousands of new neurons, or brain cells, each month.

In a 2008 research study, the Bowles team found that there were bursts of new cell development in the hippocampus at 48 hours after abstinence and another burst in the hippocampus and regions of another part of the brain, the cortex, at seven days of being alcohol-free.

Brain Remains Impaired Early on in Recovery

Since research has shown that the brain is impaired early on in recovery, the medical community has come to understand that it is important to not bombard people seeking alcohol recovery help with too much information early on. This can affect the effectiveness of alcoholism treatment programs in the first weeks of recovery and abstinence.

One study found that people entering treatment were not able to recall information that they had just seen in a video. However, research shows that as cognitive functions improve with time, people are able to make better use of information presented to them in individual and group therapy, educational programs, and 12-step programs.

Physical Activity Helps Promote Brain Cell Growth

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that early treatment programs focus on factors such as improved nutrition, opportunities for exercise and enticing the patient out of social isolation in early treatment days rather than focusing exclusively on psychological issues related to alcohol dependence. Research suggests that new brain cell growth can also be promoted by increased physical activity, learning experiences and some medications, such as antidepressants.

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