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How long does it take for the brain to recover from the damage caused by heavy alcohol use?

11 Abril 2024

A study evaluated whether it is possible for the thickness of the cerebral cortex of alcoholics to recover to levels comparable to those of people who do not consume alcoholic beverages.

The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the brain, responsible for many important functions such as thinking, memory, decision making and others. Cortex thickness refers to the thickness of this layer. In simple terms, the thickness of the cortex can indicate the number and density of brain cells in this region. Greater cortical thickness may be associated with better brain health and greater cognitive ability, while reduced thickness may be a sign of some conditions and diseases. This thickness can vary from person to person and can change in response to certain behaviors, neuropsychiatric illnesses and substance use such as alcohol consumption or abstinence from it (1,2).

A number of factors can influence the way and intensity in which alcohol affects the brain and cortical thickness, such as the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption, age of onset and duration of consumption, age of the individual, educational level, sex, genetic aspects, family history of alcoholism, existing risk of prenatal exposure to alcohol and the individual's general health conditions. To find out more, access our text Damaging effects of alcohol on the brain.

There are few studies that have investigated changes in cortical thickness brought by abstinence in individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD), most of them evaluated over a period of less than 1 month. However, the extent of long-term regional cortical thickness recovery, that is, beyond 6 months, is unknown and necessary to determine whether there is a linear change.

A recent study evaluated 88 participants, 70 men with an average age of 51 years, who sought treatment for alcoholism and alcohol abuse over approximately 7.3 months of abstinence from alcohol and other illicit substances and compared them with a control group to evaluate brain thickness. The change in cortical thickness was greater from 1 week to 1 month of abstinence than from 1 to 7.3 months in all brain regions studied. Another finding refers to patients with atherogenic conditions, that is, people with altered fat levels in the blood, and in patients who actively smoked, in which both conditions showed less recovery of cortical thickness than in patients without these conditions (2).

The impact of alcohol on the brain is a complex and multifaceted topic. Excessive and frequent alcohol consumption can lead to significant changes in brain structure and function, including decreased cortical thickness, which is closely linked to several essential cognitive functions. However, science has shown us that the brain has a remarkable capacity to recover and adapt to alcohol withdrawal.


Additional Info

  • Referências:
    1. Yang, X., Tian, F., Zhang, H., Zeng, J., Chen, T., Wang, S., Jia, Z., & Gong, Q. (2016). Cortical and subcortical gray matter shrinkage in alcohol-use disorders: a voxel-based meta-analysis. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 66, 92–103.
    2. Durazzo, T. C., Stephens, L. H., & Meyerhoff, D. J. (2023). Regional cortical thickness recovery with extended abstinence after treatment in those with alcohol use disorder. Alcohol (Fayetteville, N.Y.), S0741-8329(23)00263-X. Advance online publication.
    3. Durazzo, T. C., & Meyerhoff, D. J. (2020). Changes of frontal cortical subregion volumes in alcohol dependent individuals during early abstinence: associations with treatment outcome. Brain imaging and behavior, 14(5), 1588–1599.

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