Can Alcohol Affect Your Brain Even After You Become Sober?

By Kelly Burch 04/10/19

Researchers set out to discover if prior heavy alcohol use continued to affect the brain's white matter in sobriety.

sober woman saying no to alcohol

Brain damage caused by excessive alcohol use continues for at least six weeks after someone stops drinking, a new study has found. This reverses previous thinking that the brain-changing effects of alcohol stop as soon as a person sobers up. 

“Until now, nobody could believe that in the absence of alcohol, the damage in the brain would progress,” Dr. Santiago Canals, co-author of the study, told Medical News Today

The study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, examined the brains of 91 men with alcohol use disorder and 36 men without alcohol use disorder, who were used as a control group. The drinkers were hospitalized and in a detox program so that their alcohol intake could be carefully monitored. 

"An important aspect of the work is that the group of patients participating in our research [is] hospitalized in a detoxification program, and their consumption of addictive substances is controlled, which guarantees that they are not drinking any alcohol. Therefore, the abstinence phase can be followed closely,” Canals said. 

The researchers found that changes to the brain’s white matter—which affects communication between different regions of he brain—continued even after the participants got sober. 

"[T]here is a generalized change in the white matter, that is, in the set of fibers that communicate [with] different parts of the brain. The alterations are more intense in the corpus callosum and the fimbria,” Canals explained. 

He went on, “The corpus callosum is related to the communication between both hemispheres. The fimbria contains the nerve fibers that [enable the communication between] the hippocampus, a fundamental structure for the formation of memories, the nucleus accumbens, and the prefrontal cortex.”

These areas of the brain control reward-seeking, decision making, and understanding of socially-acceptable behavior. 

In addition to monitoring humans, the research team looked at how rats’ brains changed in early abstinence. The team was able "to monitor the transition from normal to alcohol dependence in the brain, a process that is not possible to see in humans,” said Silvia De Santis, lead study author. The animal research confirmed what researchers say in humans. 

Researchers are beginning to understand how excessive drinking can have long-term effects on the brain.

Another study published recently found that alcohol use by teens was linked to smaller brain volume, something that can have effects on cognition. This may also be associated with heavier drinking in adulthood. 

“Thus, developmental brain volume changes in the span of late adolescence to young adulthood in macaques is altered by excessive alcohol, an insult (the cause of some kind of physical or mental injury) that may be linked to the continuation of heavy drinking throughout later adult life,” study authors wrote. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.