, Volume 259, Issue 3, pp 143-150,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 22 Jan 2009

Effects of abstinence on brain morphology in alcoholism


Chronic alcohol abuse leads to morphological changes of the brain. We investigated if these volumetric changes are reversible after a period of abstinence. For this reason 41 male and 15 female alcohol patients underwent MRI-scanning after in-patient detoxification (baseline) entering alcoholism treatment programs, and between 6 and 9 months later (follow-up), in a phase of convalescence. Additionally, 29 male and 16 female control subjects were examined. The MRI-scans were delineated and the resulting regions of interest, volumes of lateral ventricles and prefrontal lobes were expressed relatively to total brain volume. Compared to control subjects alcohol patients showed bilaterally decreased prefrontal lobes (11% reduction) and increased lateral ventricles (up to 42% enlargement). The extent of the ventricular increase was depending on patient’s additional psychiatric diagnosis, showing smaller lateral ventricles in patients with additional personality disorder. While at follow-up the size of prefrontal lobes remained unchanged, volumes of the lateral ventricles decreased (5–6% reduction) in alcohol patients with abstinence and improved drinking behavior, especially in patients that underwent only one detoxification. The extent of the ventricular enlargement correlated with the elevation of alcohol related laboratory measures (mean corpuscular volume, gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase). In conclusion this study confirms the hypothesis that alcoholism causes brain damages that are partially reversible. It should be analyzed in further studies with larger sample sizes, if complete brain regeneration is possible maintaining abstinence over a longer period.