Long-Term Sobriety Heals Alcoholics' Brains

Most neurological function returns to normal, research shows

TUESDAY, Aug. 29, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Alcoholics who can stay sober regain most, if not all, brain function despite years of heavy drinking, new research suggests.

"We've looked at long-term abstinence among middle-aged people who stopped drinking in middle age and found virtually full recovery," said study author George Fein, a senior scientist and president of Neurobehavioral Research Inc. (NRI), based in Corte Madera, Calif. and Honolulu.

The findings are reported in the September issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The work was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse and conducted by Fein's team at NRI, a private research group focused on the effects of drugs and disease on the brain. Additional research was conducted at the Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley, Calif.

In the study, Fein's group tracked the neurological abilities of 48 middle-aged alcoholic men and women living in the San Francisco Bay area. All of the participants had been abstinent anywhere from six months to 13 years. While drinking, the male patients had consumed a minimum of 100 drinks per month while the women had consumed at least 80 drinks per month.

The researchers compared the cognitive ability of these ex-drinkers to that of 58 nonalcoholic men and women who either didn't drink at all or drank only in moderation. Each participant was assessed for memory, abstraction, attention, psychomotor abilities, reaction time, spatial processing, and verbal skills.

On nearly every measure of cognitive and mental ability, the abstinent alcoholic patients performed just as well as the nonalcoholic patients, the researchers report.

The abstinent alcoholics appeared to function normally and were deemed fully capable of engaging in a "normal" personal and professional life, the researchers said.

The one exception appeared to be spatial-processing abilities, where alcoholic patients performed slightly worse. Diminished spatial processing capacity would affect a person's ability to read a map, assemble things, and perform similar spatial-orientation tasks.

Spatial abilities aside, long-term abstinence appears to allow alcoholics to regain full recovery of mental and cognitive functioning, the researchers concluded.

Fein said more thorough research is needed to confirm these early findings, and additional study could assess other factors, such as the ability of abstinent alcoholics to recover motor function. Other studies might examine the level of recovery for older alcoholics, he said.

"However, people should definitely view these results as very encouraging," Fein said. "They suggest that if people stop drinking and stay stopped there is the possibility of close to full recovery of mental function. It doesn't guarantee full recovery. But this shows that it is possible."

Dr. Charles Goodstein, a psychoanalyst and clinical professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, agreed with Fein that the findings are encouraging.

"This research shows us what we would like to see, because in so many cases in the past we thought this kind of deteriorating neurological process might not be reversible," said Goodstein.

"However, I'm not sure how methodologically tight this study is," he cautioned. "The patients they looked at form a very heterogeneous group, and we don't know very much about how much drinking they did, how long they did it, how steadily they did it, or their condition prior to the onset of drinking. And it's not a very large group."

"The problem, of course, is that these kind of studies are very hard to pull off," noted Goodstein. "Alcoholic patients are not the most stable of figures, and they don't lend themselves so easily to long-term studies. But that is what is needed -- a full neurological evaluation of a large body of these types of patients. Until that is done, I'm not sure that all the data is in."

More information

For more on alcoholism, visit the American Council on Alcoholism.

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