Alcohol Damage Continues After Drinking Stops

Brain has to tap into new regions to perform simple tasks

THURSDAY, April 17, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Even after alcoholics stop drinking, they continue to experience motor problems.

A Vanderbilt University Medical Center study also found the brains of abstinent alcoholics seem to compensate for alcohol-caused brain damage by using other brain regions.

The study, published in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, included seven males and one females, all of whom were alcohol-dependent but didn't have any alcohol for two weeks. They were compared to seven female and two male healthy volunteers in a control group.

All the participants performed finger-tapping exercises while the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the brain regions that were used in the exercise.

Both groups alternated between their dominant hands and non-dominant hands to do the finger-tapping.

The alcohol-dependent people performed the finger-tapping much more slowly than those in the control group. However, that slower finger tapping wasn't accompanied by proportionately decreased fMRI brain activity in the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, the brain regions involved in this kind of motor function.

Instead, the researchers observed that the alcoholic-dependent people showed a significant increase of activity in the cortical brain region on the same side as the hand that was doing the finger-tapping.

That means the alcoholics had to use more of their brains to do less in terms of performing a simple motor skill, compared to the control group.

The study findings pose new questions.

"If we study patients as they progress with the abstinence, do these abnormalities get better? It may be that the brain gets better at compensating, but it doesn't normalize. It just learns how to bring in even more parts of the brain. You could say it learns to rewire itself," Peter R. Martin, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology and corresponding author for the study, says in a news release.

"Another possibility could be that as the brain heals, less activation is required, and that's a real form of recovery. The answers rest with understanding not the tapping itself, but the mechanisms behind the tapping," Martin adds.

More information

Here's where you can learn more about alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

SOURCE: Vanderbilt University Medical Center, news release, April 14, 2003
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