Longitudinal Changes in Magnetic Resonance Imaging Brain Volumes in Abstinent and Relapsed Alcoholics


  • This study was supported by Grants AA05965 and MH30854, and by the Department of Veterans Affairs. A partial report of this study was presented by Pfefferbaum et al.53

Reprint requests: Adolf Pfefferbaum, M.D., Psychiatry Service, VA Palo Alto Health Care System, Building 4 (116A-3), Palo Alto, CA 94304.


Chronic alcoholism is associated with smaller volumes of cortical gray matter and white matter and a complementary increase in brain cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) volumes, relative to age norms. This longitudinal study quantified the extent of brain volume changes associated with abstinence and drinking at three time points in chronic alcoholics. We obtained magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on 58 alcoholic men after an average of 12 days (MRI-1) and 32 days (MRI-2) of sobriety. In addition, 58 healthy control subjects were scanned at a comparable interval. At MRI-3, 11 controls and 39 alcoholics were rescanned, 2–12 months after MRI-2; 19 alcoholics had abstained, and 20 had resumed drinking. Axial MRI slices were segmented into cortical gray matter, white matter, and CSF and summed over seven slices; lateral and third ventricular volumes were also estimated. MRI volume changes were corrected using an estimate of interscan measurement error caused by head positioning differences, and then divided by the interval to yield rates of change (slopes). From MRI-1 to MRI-2, the alcoholic group showed declines in CSF volumes of the lateral ventricles and posterior cortical sulci, and a trend toward an increase in anterior cortical gray matter volume relative to the control group. From MRI-2 to MRI-3, third ventricular volumes decreased in the abstainers relative to the relapsers and controls; cortical white matter volume decreased in the relapsers. In the relapsers, lifetime consumption of alcohol (as of MRI-1) predicted later vulnerability to white matter volume decline and third ventricular enlargement with resumption of drinking. These data suggest that improvement in cortical gray matter, sulcal, and lateral ventricular volumes occur early in the course of abstinence, and that improvement in third ventricular volume appears later with continued abstinence. Resumption of drinking after a short period of abstinence arrests third ventricular volume improvement and produces white matter volume loss.