• Volumetric MRI;
  • Brain;
  • MRSI;
  • Alcohol;
  • Abstinence

Background: Structural brain damage, especially to white matter, is well documented in chronic alcohol abuse. There is also evidence for brain metabolic abnormalities in this condition. It is unknown, however, to what extent these structural and metabolic changes are present in treated alcohol abusers who achieve long-term abstinence versus treatment-naïve, heavily drinking individuals.

Methods: This study compared 12 recovering alcoholics with 8 actively heavily drinking subjects. Participants underwent magnetic resonance (MR) imaging and proton MR spectroscopic imaging of the brain. Semiautomated image segmentation techniques yielded volumes for gray matter, white matter, white matter lesions, and cerebral spinal fluid in multiple brain regions defined by Talairach stereotaxic coordinates. Automated spectral processing methods yielded gray and white matter concentrations of the metabolites N-acetylaspartate, creatine, and choline for the same regions.

Results: Recovering alcoholics had greater volumes of frontal white matter, but the opposite was true for white matter in a “remainder” region encompassing the basal frontal and temporal lobes, the cerebellum, and the brainstem. Recovering alcoholics also had smaller volumes of white matter lesions in whole brain, in occipital and mesial parietal regions, and in the remainder region. Recovering alcoholics had greater gray matter volumes in the orbital frontal pole and postcentral gyrus, but smaller gray matter volumes in the anterior cingulate. Whole-brain and regional metabolite concentrations did not differ significantly between the two groups.

Conclusions: White and gray matter volumes in different regions of the brain were greater or smaller in recovering, treated alcoholics. The findings suggest region-specific structural recovery from chronic alcohol–induced brain injury, but also region-specific long-term structural damage in abstinent alcoholics. White matter lesions were widespread in active drinkers and may partly resolve during long-term abstinence. Proton MR spectroscopic measures, as applied in this cross-sectional study, were largely ineffective in revealing metabolic effects of abstinence on the alcohol-damaged brain.