Researchers at the Institute of Neurosciences of Alicante (joint institution of the Spanish National Research Council [CSIC] and the University Miguel Hernández) and the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim (Germany) showed that damages caused to the brain by alcohol consumption continue to progress during the first weeks of abstinence. The results, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, refute the belief that changes in white matter begin to normalize immediately after cessation of consumption.
“Until now, nobody could believe that, in the absence of alcohol, brain damage would progress,” says Santiago Canals, an expert at the Neuroscience Institute and coordinator of the research.
To reach these conclusions, the scientists performed magnetic resonance imaging to more than ninety voluntary patients hospitalized in a German hospital for their rehabilitation treatment.
“The group of participants in our research is hospitalized in a detoxification program, and the use of addictive substances is controlled, which guarantees that they are not drinking any alcohol,” says Canals.
“Therefore, we can closely monitor the abstinence phase, a critical period because relapses lead to chronic alcohol consumption,” he adds.
Excessive alcohol consumption is at the origin of more than 200 diseases and causes 3.3 million deaths worldwide each year. Hence, the early detection of associated negative effects is a major objective.
Study with alcohol-dependent rats
To monitor the transition from normal to alcohol dependence in the brain, the researchers studied simultaneously rat (Marchigian Sardinian) models of alcoholism.
“It is not possible to see this process in humans,” explains Silvia de Santis, from the Institute of Neurosciences, the main author of the work.
“With the consumption of alcohol there is a generalized change in the white matter, that is, in the set of fibers that communicate different parts of the brain,” Canals explains. The alterations are more intense in the corpus callosum –associated to the communication between both hemispheres– and the fimbria –which contains the nerve fibers that communicate the hippocampus, a fundamental structure for the formation of memories.
The researchers from Alicante and Germany are now trying to characterize the inflammatory and degenerative processes independently and more precisely, in order to understand the progression during the early abstinence phase in people with alcohol abuse problems.