Compromised Pontocerebellar and Cerebellothalamocortical Systems: Speculations on Their Contributions to Cognitive and Motor Impairment in Nonamnesic Alcoholism


  • Supported by NIAAA Grants AA10723, AA05965, AA12388, and AA12999.

Edith V. Sullivan, PhD, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, 401 Quarry Rd., Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford, CA 94305-5723; Fax: 650-859-2743; E-mail:


Background: Corticopontocerebellar and cerebellothalamocortical circuits underlie a wide range of neuropsychological processes compromised by alcoholism. The analyses herein tested whether abnormalities of volumes of brain structures forming nodes of these separate feed-forward and feedback systems are selectively related to each other and whether any of these noncortical regions can account for cognitive and motor deficits occurring as sequelae of chronic alcoholism.

Methods: Regional brain measures originated from our prior neuroimaging studies, showing in alcoholics significant volume deficits in the principal structures of interest: cerebellar hemispheres, vermis, pons, and thalamus as well as prefrontal, frontal, and parietal cortex. Neuropsychological functions targeted for analysis—problem solving, visuospatial ability, and static postural stability—showed 0.6 to 1.6 SD deficits in these alcoholic men.

Results: In alcoholics, the patterns of correlations were consistent with dissociation of thalamic and pontine circuitry. Pontine and thalamic volumes were not correlated with each other. Pontine volumes correlated with white matter volumes of anterior superior vermis and gray and white matter volumes of the cerebellar hemispheres but not with cortical regional volumes. Thalamic volumes correlated with gray matter volumes of the cerebellar hemispheres, parietal cortex, and inferior posterior vermian lobule, which itself correlated with parietal, prefrontal, and frontal cortical volumes. Controls did not show these correlational patterns. Brain structure-function relationships in alcoholics examined with multiple regression identified anterior vermian but not prefrontal or parietal volume as a unique predictor of balance scores; vermian and thalamic but not prefrontal cortical volumes as predictors of card sorting scores; and cerebellar hemispheric white matter but not parietal cortical volume as a predictor of visuospatial ability.

Conclusions: Each major node of frontocerebellar circuitry shows volume deficits in alcoholics but can be independently compromised. Disruption of these circuits may underlie alcoholism-related neuropsychological deficits, either by abnormalities present in individual nodes or by disconnection via interruption of selective circuitry.