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Stop drinking and your brain gets bigger

By SooToday.com Staff
SooToday.com
Sunday, December 17, 2006

ABRIDGED NEWS RELEASE

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

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Brains can recover from alcoholic damage but patients should stop drinking as soon as possible.

New research reveals the brain's capacity to regenerate.

However, the sooner alcoholics abstain from drinking, the more they may recover.

The findings, to be published Monday in the online edition of the journal Brain, used sophisticated scanning technology and computer software to measure how brain volume, form and function changed over six to seven weeks of abstinence from alcohol in 15 alcohol-dependent patients (10 men, five women).

The researchers from Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Italy measured the patients’ brain volume at the beginning of the study and again after about 38 days of sobriety, and they found that it had increased by an average of nearly 2 per cent during this time.

In addition, levels of two chemicals, which are indicators for how well the brain’s nerve cells and nerve sheaths are constituted, rose significantly.

The increase of the nerve cell marker correlated with the patients performing better in a test of attention and concentration.

Only one patient seemed to continue to lose some brain volume, and this was also the patient who had been an alcoholic for the longest time.

The leader of the research, Dr. Andreas Bartsch from the University of Wuerzburg, Germany, said: "The core message from this study is that, for alcoholics, abstinence pays off and enables the brain to regain some substance and to perform better.

"However, our research also provides evidence that the longer you drink excessively, the more you risk losing this capacity for regeneration.

"Therefore, alcoholics must not put off the time when they decide to seek help and stop drinking; the sooner they do it, the better."

Dr. Bartsch, who is senior neuroradiology resident and head of the structural and functional MR-imaging laboratory of the Department of Neuroradiology at the University of Wuerzburg, said the study was one of the first to be able to integrate data that showed how the brain regained volume and function early on, once alcoholics, who had no complicating factors, had stopped drinking alcohol.

It was carried out in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Oxford’s Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) and from the University of Siena’s Institute of Neurological and Behavioural Sciences.

The patients’ brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and proton MR-spectroscopy upon admission and after short-term sobriety.

Only the patients that managed to abstain from alcohol without receiving any psychotherapeutic medication were included in the study, and those with secondary alcohol-induced disorders, as well as heavy cigarette smokers (more than 10 cigarettes a day), were excluded.

Ten healthy volunteers (six men, four women), matched for age and gender, were recruited as controls for the study.

The data were analysed and evaluated using FSL, a sophisticated software package developed at the Oxford FMRIB Centre, and LCModel (a computer program that analyses spectroscopy data) to give estimates of changes to brain volume, form (morphology), metabolism and function.


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