Chronic alcohol intake can damage white matter pathways across the entire brain

November 24, 2014


Chronic misuse of alcohol results in measurable damage to the brain that can impact one's ability to get and stay sober, according to a new study. The findings suggest that chronic drinking can be detrimental to the integrity of frontal white matter tracts. This can interfere with cognitive and inhibitory control, which, in turn, plays an important role in achieving and maintaining abstinence.

The results will be published in the December 2014 online-only issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. An early view version of the paper is available now.

"The idea that alcohol affects the brain has been established for decades," said Catherine Brawn Fortier, a researcher at the VA Boston Healthcare System, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and corresponding author of the study. "Before advances in neuroimaging technology, the degree to which alcohol affects the brain across different levels of alcohol use, and how it may interact with other health factors, could only be inferred from behavior and through post-mortem studies. We now can use neuroimaging techniques to see, in vivo, that alcohol has wide ranging effects across the entire brain that contribute to a wide range of changes in psychological abilities and intellectual functions." 

The data for the study were obtained at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH. David Salat, an assistant professor in radiology at Harvard Medical School and an assistant neuroscientist at MGH, led the MRI acquisition and guided the analysis. Salat has also collaborated with Fortier and Regina McGlinchey, senior author of the present paper, in studies of traumatic brain injury at the VA Boston Healthcare System as well as in his own primary studies of brain aging.

"The study used diffusion tensor imaging to map the regional vulnerability of white matter to chronic alcohol misuse and found differences in tissue structure between abstinent alcoholics and nonalcoholic controls to be fairly extensive, with potential vulnerability of frontal and fronto-striatal regions," he said.

Damage to the frontal lobes can be particularly injurious to alcoholics. "These brain areas are critical to learning new information and, even more importantly, in self-regulation, impulse control, and the modification of all complicated human behaviors," Fortier continued. "In other words, the very parts of the brain that may be most important for controlling problem drinking are damaged by alcohol, and the more alcohol consumed, the greater the damage."

Read more about the study here.