Over time, people with alcoholism commonly experience significant disruptions in their higher-level mental functions. One of the chief higher-level disruptions caused by chronic alcohol exposure is a reduction in the ability to make, store and organize memories. In a study published in May 2014 in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Psychiatry, a team of German researchers sought to determine if people affected by alcoholism experience at least a partial return of their basic memory-related abilities if they stop drinking.
Alcoholism centers on persistent changes in everyday brain function that cause the brain to rely on the continued intake of a typically high amount of one or more forms of alcohol. In addition to this alcohol reliance or alcohol dependence, affected individuals have other hallmark symptoms that can include rising tolerance to the effects of alcohol consumption, the emergence of a withdrawal syndrome when the brain’s alcohol requirements go unfulfilled, establishment of an alcohol-oriented lifestyle, exposure to seriously negative alcohol-related consequences and the continuation of heavy drinking despite exposure to such consequences. Some of these symptoms can also appear in more or less identical form in a non-physically dependent person who abuses alcohol. For this reason, current guidelines in the U.S. direct doctors to identify the symptoms of both alcoholism and alcohol abuse as aspects of a joint condition called alcohol use disorder. Doctors count the number of symptoms present (ranging from a low of two to a high of 11) in order to determine the extent of the disorder in their patients.
Alcoholism and Memory
Even a single instance of alcohol intoxication produces noticeable short-term deficits in memory function. At the extreme, a highly intoxicated person can experience “blackouts,” periods of partial or total amnesia when the presence of excessive amounts of alcohol starts to interfere with a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for the making, storage and recall of memories. Specifically, alcohol exposure disrupts the hippocampus’s ability to transform relatively unstable short-term memories into relatively stable long-term memories. In a person who regularly consumes alcohol in excessive amounts, the hippocampus can start to lose its ability to perform its functions, even in the absence of blackout episodes. When new events occur, the brain of a person with alcoholism essentially lacks the flexibility to accurately record and retain the incoming information.
Effects of Abstinence
Alcohol abstinence is a common treatment goal of programs designed to help recovering alcoholics. In the study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from the Max Planck Institute and five other German institutions used brain scans to determine the effect that the establishment of abstinence has on the hippocampus of a person in treatment for alcoholism. These scans provided detailed information on both the size and level of function inside the hippocampus. A total of 42 people affected by alcoholism took part in the project. The researchers scanned these individuals’ brains on two occasions. The first scans took place just after each person had gone through alcohol withdrawal in the very first stages of treatment; the second scans took place another two weeks into the recovery process. For the sake of comparison, the researchers also examined the brains of 32 people unaffected by alcoholism.
After completing their work, the researchers concluded that, at the time of the first scans, the study participants with alcoholism clearly had damaging hippocampus changes not found in the participants unaffected by the condition. The worst cases of hippocampus disruption were found in individuals who had consumed excessive amounts of alcohol for extended periods of time and in individuals who experienced particularly severe withdrawal symptoms after quitting drinking. Critically, the researchers also concluded that, after two weeks of abstaining from alcohol, the participants with alcoholism experienced a substantial rebound in their hippocampus function. The biggest gains in function appeared in those people who had gone through severe forms of alcohol withdrawal.
Previous researchers had used animal testing to theoretically establish the fact that people with alcoholism can experience important improvements in their memory function if they stop using alcohol. The authors of the current study believe their findings support this earlier work and help explain the improvements in overall mental function found in recovering alcoholics who abstain from drinking long-term.