Alcoholics, Sobriety, and the Brain

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Persons with alcohol use disorder and/or addiction issues probably have a good idea how damaging years of alcohol abuse can be to the human body. We know that the average person who has suffered from alcoholism at any point in life will live a shorter life on average, and we know many vital organs are severely damaged by heavy alcohol use over time. The brain is one of the key areas that is damaged by both alcohol and drug addiction. However, for most opioid addicts, as an example, after a term of sobriety has returned the normal chemical balance and function to the brain, the lasting damage is usually not a major factor in later life. This, of course, does not include those who suffer damage from oxygen or blood deprivation during an overdose, as overdoses on opioids are beginning to become more common that overdoses on alcohol. People who enter alcohol treatment centers, however, can often find it overwhelming to learn of all the damage they may have done to their own bodies. 

There was an old term known as “wet brain”, a nickname or shorthand for Wernicke=Korsakoff syndrome. Alcoholics Anonymous members are often at least familiar with the incredibly debilitating effects of that disease, incurable and almost entirely disabling as it has been to many people in the AA program. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, again often called “wet brain,” is caused by a deficiency in vitamin B1, and it eventually leads to nerve problems and death from brain damage if not caught early enough.  Over the last few decades researchers all over the world have done studies using mice, using animals, and using current and former alcoholics, studying the many effects of alcohol on the brain. They often involve scans of the brain, and sometimes autopsies of the brains from bodies that have been left to science. The results, in almost all cases, are striking. The brains of alcoholics seem to deteriorate at different rates, depending on the individual, but the issues that arise are similar and profoundly serious in almost all cases. A layman should simply understand that heavy drinking kills the brain over time, increasing with age and time spent using alcohol. There are even several convincing studies that lighter drinking can be very damaging over time, and starting drinking at a young age has been proven to lead to neuro-developmental deficiencies. 

Most importantly though, I think, there is hope for all people who seek treatment for the terrible disease for alcohol addiction. If you walk into an alcohol treatment center anywhere in the world, the experts there should be honest with you about the risks faced by alcoholics, but they can also offer hope that science has brought to the public somewhat recently. Scientists at Stanford Universities’ Neuroscience of Addiction Laboratory have concluded that for many alcoholics, a long period of sobriety can return more normal functioning to the brain. The brain damaged by alcohol can effectively improve from that state, if the alcohol use disorder is treated, and a period of at least 6 months of sobriety is reached. The study concentrated on those people who have been sober for at least 6 months and included participants all the way up to many years of healthy sober living without a relapse. To quote the study directly, “Results indicate that long-term abstinent alcoholics can recover many of their neurocognitive deficits, except for spatial-processing abilities.” So, that is mostly good news. Spatial processing abilities are especially important, for things like balance and vision, but the study lists too many positive effects from abstinence to even list them all here. For all the bad news that both addicts and alcoholics contend with when finally seeking medical treatment, this offers some better news for alcoholics in rehabilitation.

 

By Tim Cannon

 

Citations

“Long-term abstinence may resolve many of the neurocognitive deficits associated with alcoholism.” Stanford University. Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-08/ace-lam082106.php