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Smoking Hinders the Brain’s Recovery from Alcohol Abuse

After quitting drinking, many recovering alcoholics turn to smoking cigarettes to help manage their negative moods and keep their minds off of wanting to drink. Researchers agree that the rate of smoking among recovering alcoholics is more than triple the general population’s rate. But besides the obvious health risks of smoking such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, it has recently been found that smoking interferes with the brain’s ability to recover from alcohol abuse.

Alcohol-use disorders (AUDs) can damage the brain, especially the frontal and parietal cortices. In most cases, this damage can be reversed by abstaining from alcohol for a substantial amount of time. However, it has recently been discovered through MRIs that chronic cigarette smoking makes it harder for the blood flow in the brain to recover from long-term, heavy drinking.

Cerebral perfusion is a measure of the amount of blood flow to brain tissue per unit time. The brain needs a normal, uninterrupted flow of blood to supply brain tissue with essential compounds and oxygen. People with AUDs generally have reduced perfusion. With abstinence from alcohol, perfusion can be restored, but there are several factors that can influence recovery, including the use of tobacco products.

Anderson Mon, senior research fellow in the department of radiology at the University of California, San Francisco, and his team tested 19 non-smoking alcohol-dependent (ALC) patients and 22 smoking alcohol-dependent patients at one and five weeks of alcohol abstinence. They also used 28 non-smokers who drink lightly as controls. The results show that even though all patients improved with abstinence, the smokers demonstrated significantly less improvement, especially in the frontal lobes.

The brain’s frontal lobes are involved in high-order cognitive functions such as learning, short-term memory, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and emotional control, said Mon, whereas the parietal lobes are involved in attentional regulation and visuospatial processing. “Chronic and excessive drinking is associated with neurobiological abnormalities in these regions, which contribute to the cognitive dysfunction frequently observed in those with AUDs after detoxification.”

“At one week of abstinence, both smoking and non-smoking ALC patients had similar frontal and parietal gray matter perfusion; and both groups had lower perfusion than normal controls,” said Mon. “However, after five weeks of abstinence, frontal and parietal gray matter perfusion of the non-smoking ALC patients recovered to normal control levels, whereas the smoking ALC group essentially showed no recovery.”

These results suggest that recovering alcoholics should be offered an option to stop smoking. Graeme Mason, associate professor of diagnostic radiology and psychiatry at Yale University, said that this study “certainly suggests that if a patient wishes to tackle both smoking and drinking at the same time, it will be worth the attempt to that person, helping them recover more complete brain function and stay sober, in addition to other, better-known health benefits of smoking cessation.”

Mon summed up the study’s findings by saying, “In short, prolonged and excessive use of alcohol consumption is bad for your brain, but a combination of alcohol with smoking is worse.”

Source:  Science Daily, Smoking Interferes with Recovery from Alcohol-Related Brain Damage, May 15, 2009

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