FRIDAY, Aug. 31, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Long-term alcohol abuse affects men differently than women, according to a new study of recovering alcoholics that found white matter in women's brains recovers faster than it does in men.
Over time, alcoholism results in the loss of white matter, which is brain tissue that facilitates communication among different areas of the brain. Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System found alcoholic women who stop drinking can regain their white matter faster than men who get sober.
"We believe that many of the cognitive and emotional deficits observed in people with chronic alcoholism, including memory problems and flat affect, are related to disconnections that result from a loss of white matter," said the study's leader, Susan Mosher Ruiz, a postdoctoral research scientist in the neuropsychology laboratory at Boston University School of Medicine.
The researchers examined brain scans of 42 formerly alcoholic men and women who drank heavily for more than five years, and compared them to scans from 42 nonalcoholics. The scans revealed those who drank longer had smaller white matter volume. The researchers noted the decrease in white matter among the men was observed in the corpus callosum, while the effect was observed in the women's cortical white matter regions.
The study also found that the number of daily drinks had a strong impact on alcoholic women. The researchers noted the white matter volume loss was 1.5 percent to 2 percent for each additional daily drink. They also found an 8 percent to 10 percent increase in the size of the brain ventricles, which play a protective role in the brain. As white matter dies, cerebrospinal fluid fills the space in the ventricles.
In assessing the recovery of the men's white matter, the researchers found the corpus callosum recovered at a rate of 1 percent per year for each year of abstinence from alcohol.
For those who had stopped drinking within the previous year, white matter volume increased and ventricular volume decreased in women, but not in men. After more than a year in recovery, however, those signs disappeared in women and became apparent in men.
"These findings preliminarily suggest that restoration and recovery of the brain's white matter among alcoholics occurs later in abstinence for men than for women," Mosher Ruiz said in a Boston Medical Center news release.
"We hope that additional research in this area can help lead to improved treatment methods that include educating both alcoholic men and women about the harmful effects of excessive drinking and the potential for recovery with sustained abstinence," she added.
The study was published online recently in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information on alcoholism and alcohol abuse.