• Alcoholism;
  • alcohol use disorders;
  • brain atrophy;
  • magnetic resonance imaging;
  • meta-analysis;
  • white matter


Atrophy of brain white matter (WM) often is considered a signature injury of alcohol use disorders (AUDs). However, investigations into AUD-related changes in WM volume have yielded complex findings that are difficult to synthesize in a narrative review. The objective of this study was to obtain an averaged effect size (ES) for WM volume reduction associated with AUD diagnosis and to test potential moderators of ES. Study inclusion criteria were: (1) English language; (2) peer reviewed; (3) published before December 2011; (4) use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); (5) human participants; (6) inclusion of AUD group; (7) inclusion of non-AUD comparison group; and (8) reporting or testing of total or cerebral WM volume. Moderators included study design, MRI methodology and AUD characteristics. Nineteen studies with a total of 1302 participants (70% male) were included, and calculated ESs were confirmed by the corresponding author for 12 studies. The magnitude of the averaged ES adjusted for small sample bias (Hedges' g) for WM reduction in AUDs was 0.304 (standard error = 0.134, range = −0.57–1.21). Hierarchical linear modeling indicated that the overall ES differed significantly from 0, t(18) = 2.257, P = 0.037, and that the distribution of the 19 ESs showed significant heterogeneity beyond sampling error, χ2(18) = 52.400, P < 0.001. Treatment-seeking status and length of abstinence were significant moderators of ES distribution. These results are suggestive of WM recovery with sustained abstinence and point to the need for further investigation of factors related to treatment-seeking status.