Alcoholics' Brains Recover Quickly After Detox

An alcoholic with liquor looking depressed.
A man struggles with alcoholism. (Image credit: william casey, Shutterstock)

Alcohol abuse can literally shrink the brain, but recovery begins soon after alcoholics sober up, according to new research.

Within 14 days of detoxification, the brain bounces back, replacing much of the volume lost to alcohol, said study researcher Gabriele Ende, a professor of medical physics at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany. The cerebellum, the region of the brain devoted to movement and fine motor skills, is among the fastest to respond, Ende added.

"We found evidence for a rather rapid recovery of the brain from alcohol-induced volume loss within the initial 14 days of abstinence," she said in a statement. "Although brain shrinkage as well as a partial recovery with continued abstinence have been elaborately described in previous studies, no previous study has looked at the brain immediately at the onset of alcohol withdrawal and short-term recovery."

The loss of brain tissue in alcoholics already had been linked to problems including memory loss, difficulty concentrating and impulsive behavior, Ende said. To find out whether such losses could be reversed, she and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging in an inpatient treatment facility to scan the brains of 49 alcoholics within the first 24 hours of detox and again two weeks later.

The researchers then compared those brain images with MRI scans from 55 other individuals of the same age and genders as the alcoholic patients. [10 Intoxicating Beer Facts]

Different brain regions were found to recover at different paces. The cerebellum, for example, was back to normal two weeks after detox. Brain areas involved in more-complex thinking get back online slower; they didn't show full recovery at the two-week mark.

"It is striking that there is an obvious improvement of motor skills soon after cessation of drinking, which is paralleled by our observation of a rapid volume recovery of the cerebellum," Ende said. "Higher cognitive functions like divided attention, which are processed in specific cortical areas, take a longer time to recover, and this seems to be mirrored in the observed slower recovery of brain volumes of these areas."

Some brain cells are irreversibly lost from alcohol abuse, according to study researcher Natalie May Zahr of the Stanford University School of Medicine.But alcohol also shrinks the volume of brain matter, a process that can be reversed with sobriety.

A study by other researchers published in 2011 found that communication between these higher-functioning areas and the cerebellum remains dysfunctional for at least a week after a person's last drink.

The researchers will report their results in January in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. The findings should be encouraging for recovering alcoholics, said Zahr, a researcher in psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

"This study offers recovering alcoholics a sense of hope ― hope that even within two weeks of abstinence, the recovering individual should be able to observe improvements in brain functioning that may allow for better insight and thus ability to remain sober," Zahr said in a statement. "Indeed, a minimal of brain healing may be necessary before the addict is able to achieve the control necessary to maintain continued abstinence."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.