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Alcohol affects brain health and psychological functions


It's not new news that alcohol damages the brain. Previous studies focused on cortical atrophy, but none examined cortical atrophy using thickness measurements to obtain a regional mapping of tissue loss across the full cortical surface. In fact, damage occurs in gradations: more alcohol, more damage.

"Before advances in neuro-imaging technology, the degree to which alcohol affects the brain across different levels of alcohol use, and how it may interact with other health factors, was unclear," said Catherine Brawn Fortier, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School. "We now know that alcohol has wide ranging effects across the entire cortex and in structures of the brain that contribute to a wide range of psychological abilities and intellectual functions. This is the first study to precisely measure the variation in the thickness of the cerebral cortex, which is the thin layer of neurons that one sees on the surface of the brain and supports all higher-level human cognition."

Alcohol affects both gray and white brain matter, with the highest impact on the frontal and temporal lobes. "These brain areas are critical to learning and, even more importantly, in self-regulation, impulse control, and the modification of all complicated human behaviors," she continued. "In other words, the very parts of the brain that may be most important for controlling problem drinking are damaged by alcohol, and the more alcohol consumed, the greater the damage."

"This study documents, for the first time, the dynamic nature of the neuropathology associated with chronic heavy alcohol use," said Terence M. Keane, associate chief of staff for research & development at the VA Boston Healthcare System. "Severe reductions in frontal brain regions can result in a dramatic change to personality and behavior, taking the form of impulsivity, difficulty with self-monitoring, planning, reasoning, poor attention span, inability to alter behavior, a lack of awareness of inappropriate behavior, mood changes, even aggression. Severe reductions in temporal brain regions most often result in impairment in memory and language function."

It is hoped these findings will act as a deterrent and motivating factor for abstinence from alcohol.

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