A recent study shows that men and women with long-term alcohol abuse suffer white matter damage in different regions of the brain. Additionally, women may be able to recover the white matter damage in less time than men.
White matter volume loss often impairs cognition, emotion, and behavior. Previous alcoholism studies reported a relationship between extensive alcohol abuse and white matter tissue volume.
The study led by BUSM/VA researchers improves on previous alcoholism studies by using an algorithm that allows for white matter analysis on a finer scale and using different selection criteria for the participants. The study was led by postdoctoral research scientist Susan Ruiz, PhD, and Professor Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD., from the Laboratory of Neuropsychology at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System.
The study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research examined 42 abstinent alcoholic with 42 control participants, evenly split by gender.
The duration of heavy drinking ranged from 5 to 35 years and 0.1 to 32 years for length of sobriety for all alcoholic participants. The BUSM/VA researchers implemented magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to obtain images of the brains of participants.
The study showed that alcoholic men exhibited more damage in the corpus callosum than women. The corpus callosum is the largest connection in the brain and is associated with many complex duties including facilitating communication between the right and left hemisphere and coordinating activities.
Heavy-drinking women showed more impact on frontal and temporal white matter regions. The affected frontal white matter regions were associated with emotional regulation and reward functioning. The quantity of alcohol consumed also corresponded to larger ventricles in the brain, which does not affect behavior but shows a weakness in white matter.
In addition to the different white matter regions affected, the study also showed men may take a longer period of sobriety to recover the white matter damage from alcoholism. Women with less than one year of sobriety showed white matter increases whereas men showed a white matter increase after one year of sobriety.
In both genders, the severity of damage corresponded to the quantity of alcohol consumed, making alcoholics and heavy-drinkers more prone to impairment.