Background: Investigations have suggested that frontal lobe abnormalities are a prominent feature of the alcoholic brain, indicated by impaired neuropsychological performance on tests of frontal lobe function and by reduced frontal lobe volume in neuroimaging and neuropathological examinations. White matter compartment volume loss may underlie observed brain shrinkage and cognitive deficits associated with the frontal lobes, although the nature of this change has not been well-characterized.
Method: To investigate the susceptibility of frontal lobe white matter to alcohol-associated metabolic change and to understand the nature of alcohol-related white matter injury, 1H magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) was used to measure concentrations of metabolites in frontal white matter (FWM) and parietal white matter (PWM) of recently detoxified alcoholics (RDA) and nonalcoholic controls (CON). Concentrations of N-acetylaspartate (NAA), choline-containing compounds (Cho), myo-inositol (Ins), and creatine plus phosphocreatine (Cr) were measured in 37 RDA (mean age, 40.4 years; mean length of abstinence, 27.9 days) and 15 CON (mean age, 38.0 years).
Results: Analysis of variance (ANOVA) revealed a group by region of interest interaction for concentrations of NAA. Simple effects analysis revealed a significant 14.7% reduction in FWM NAA, while NAA levels in PWM were similar in RDA and CON. In addition, RDA had an 11.8% increase (averaged across both regions of interest) in brain white matter Ins relative to CON. Reductions in FWM NAA were associated with a longer drinking history in the RDA group, but this result was not found when both age and drinking history were used to predict the level of FWM NAA.
Conclusions: Alcohol-associated reductions in FWM NAA may be the result of neuronal loss or dysfunction in the metabolism of NAA. While alcohol-induced oxidative stress may cause global brain impairments in the metabolism and subsequent reduction of NAA, the frontal lobes are particularly rich in excitatory amino acid pathways, and axonal damage or destruction secondary to glutamate-mediated excitotoxicity during alcohol withdrawal may cause frontal lobe-specific reductions in NAA. Elevations in brain white matter Ins may reflect astrocyte proliferation as well as an osmotic response to cell shrinkage.