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Stanford Researchers Find Positive Link Between Abstinence and Brain Health

HEALTH & MEDICINEStanford Researchers Find Positive Link Between Abstinence and Brain Health

Continuous abstinence leads to improved brain condition in people who previously abused alcohol, scientists from Stanford University have proved. Researchers observed an increase in the thickness of the cerebral cortex in many areas. The recovery of the brain is limited by some coexisting diseases and other addictions. The degree of past alcohol abuse is also of importance.

Previous scientific studies have shown the destructive impact of alcohol on the brain. In people with Alcohol Use Disorders (AUD), degradation of the structures of the cerebral cortex, which plays a key role in cognitive functions, has been noted. However, there was a lack of research on the impact of long-term abstinence on the thickness of the cerebral cortex in people with AUD. Stanford scientists have delved into this issue and analysed changes in the thickness of the brain cortex that occurred in participants after more than seven months of quitting alcohol. They selected 88 people with AUD, who they examined using magnetic resonance imaging at various intervals. The results were compared with a group of 45 participants without a history of alcohol abuse.

“The aim of our study was to look at how the thickness of the brain cortex, which is a marker of various aspects of brain structure, changes with abstinence lasting more than seven months. All participants in our study were being treated for alcohol-related disorders,” says Dr Timothy Durazzo, neuropsychologist at VA Palo Alto Health Care System, and professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. “We decided to conduct this study because there are very few studies dedicated to the impact of long-term abstinence on the overall improvement of brain condition, especially the thickness of the cerebral cortex.”

Scientists observed a significant increase in the thickness of the brain cortex in most of the tested areas (26 out of 34), although in no case was a full recovery observed. Participants who drank more alcohol in the year preceding the study showed a reduced ability to rebuild, especially in the orbital, triangular, and cingulate gyrus parts. Also, smokers with a long history of smoking showed a lesser degree of improvement in about 11 out of 34 tested brain areas. These areas are associated with circuits responsible for logical thinking, problem-solving, processing and regulating emotions, as well as self-control and behaviour control.

“What is important is that in the areas where a significant improvement was noted over a period of seven months, about half showed the fastest progress within the first four to five weeks of abstinence. This makes sense because in the case of any other kind of human injury, we see the fastest improvement immediately after the injury or damage. The same applies to the brain,” explains Dr Timothy Durazzo.

Additionally, scientists analysed the impact of co-existing diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels, on the rate and scale of improvements of the state of the cerebral cortex in certain areas.

“The results of the study clearly indicate that conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and tobacco addiction need to be effectively treated for a full recovery. A very important conclusion is that not only alcohol consumption has a negative impact on the brain, but also factors related to lifestyle and co-existing diseases often observed in people with alcohol use disorders. Treating these diseases, combined with healthier eating, good sleep, and physical exercise can contribute to a potentially optimal recovery,” emphasizes a neurologist from Stanford University.

The expert notes that excessive consumption of alcohol has a negative impact on the structure of all types of brain cells.

“However, this depends on the amount of alcohol consumed daily – if it is in line with the amounts recommended on the website of the American Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the risk of negative consequences for the brain and other organs is significantly reduced,” says Dr Timothy Durazzo.

“According to the Department of Health and Human Services, moderate alcohol consumption for men means two standard units of alcohol per day, and for women, one standard unit of alcohol per day,” explains Lauren Stephens, clinical research coordinator at Stanford University and co-author of the research.

According to the World Health Organization, there is no safe dose of alcohol for health, as its consumption is associated with short or long-term health consequences. Its excessive consumption is responsible for 3 million deaths worldwide each year, accounting for 5.3% of the total, while for the age group 20-39 it is 13.5% of deaths. Alcohol is the main risk factor for premature mortality and disability among persons aged 15-49 years old, and accounts for 10% of all deaths in this age group. Alcoholic beverages have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as carcinogenic and causing an increased risk of several types of cancer.

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