Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System have discovered that men and women recover differently from alcohol abuse.

A new study, published online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, shows that the impact of long-term alcohol abuse on white matter brain volume is different for men and women, which indicates that women recover their white matter brain volume faster than men with abstinence.

Earlier studies have linked alcoholism with white matter brain pathology, which forms the connections between neurons, and therefore allows communication amongst different areas of the brain. Previous neuroimaging studies have demonstrated a link between both of these factors, but the new study allows a deeper insight into understanding this effect in gender differences by using a novel approach.

The researchers used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the effects of drinking history and gender on white matter volume by evaluating brain images from 42 abstinent alcoholic men and women who had a history of drinking heavily for over five years and 42 non-alcoholic men and women. When the team investigated the correlation between white matter volume and years of alcohol abuse, they discovered that the longer period a person committed alcohol abuse, the smaller was the white matter volume in abstinent alcoholic men and women. Whilst the decrease in men was observed in the corpus callosum, in women it was seen in cortical white matter regions.

Leading researcher Susan Mosher Ruiz, PhD, a postdoctoral research scientist in the Laboratory for Neuropsychology at BUSM and research scientist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, said:

“We believe that many of the cognitive and emotional deficits observed in people with chronic alcoholism, including memory problems and flat affect, are related to disconnections that result from a loss of white matter.”

The team also evaluated whether the average number of drinks consumed per day was linked to reduced white matter volume, discovering that the number of drinks a person consumed per day did have a strong influence on alcoholic women. The volume loss of white matter was 1.5 to 2% for each additional daily drink. Furthermore, the team noted an 8 to 10% increase in the size of the brain ventricles, i.e. areas filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which has a protective role in the brain. The ventricular space is filled with CSF produced in the ventricles when white matter dies.

When the team investigated the recovery of white matter brain volume, they discovered that in men, the corpus callosum recovered at a rate of 1% per year for each additional year of abstinence. In those abstinent for less than a year, the team observed that the white matter volume had increased and ventricular volume had decreased in women, but not at all in men. However, these signs of recovery disappeared in women and became apparent in men in those abstinent for longer than a year.

Mosher Ruiz concludes:

“These findings preliminarily suggest that restoration and recovery of the brain’s white matter among alcoholics occurs later in abstinence for men than for women. We hope that additional research in this area can help lead to improved treatment methods that include educating both alcoholic men and women about the harmful effects of excessive drinking and the potential for recovery with sustained abstinence.”

Written by Petra Rattue