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Women Recover Better After Abstinence from Long-Term Alcoholism

Update Date: Aug 10, 2012 09:40 AM EDT

Women are often asked to be more careful and aware of the alcohol intake. And there is more to it.

Scientists from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System have demonstrated how the volume of white matter in the brain gets affected differently in men and women after long-term alcohol abuse. 

According to the study, when both the genders were asked to abstain from drinking, it was found that women's brain recovered faster than men. The volume of the white matter recovery was quick in women when compared to men. 

The study was led by Susan Mosher Ruiz, PhD, postdoctoral research scientist in the Laboratory for Neuropsychology at BUSM and research scientist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, and Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD, professor of psychiatry, neurology and anatomy and neurobiology at BUSM and research career scientist at the VA Boston Healthcare System.  

Previous studies have shown that alcohol affects the white matter in the brain, which is what forms the connections between neurons. White matter is the key to communication between different areas of the brain.

The aim of the present study was to understand how alcohol affected the white matter of the brain in different genders. 

For the study, the researchers conducted MRI scans on participants in order to determine the effects of drinking history and gender on white matter volume.

Forty two abstinent alcoholic men and women participated in the study, all of whom drank heavily for more than five years. Also, 42 nonalcoholic control men and women were also involved in the study. 

The researchers found that, more the number of years of drinking, lesser the volume of white matter in the abstinent alcoholic men and women. 

Also, while in men, the decrease was observed in the corpus callosum, in women, this effect was observed in cortical white matter regions.

 "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," said Mosher Ruiz, in the news release. 

The researchers also found that in alcoholic women, the number of glasses of alcohol consumed per day was directly proportional to the white matter reduction in the brain. It was one and a half to two percent volume loss for each additional daily drink.

 Additionally, there was an eight to 10 percent increase in the size of the brain ventricles, which are areas filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that play a protective role in the brain. When white matter dies, CSF produced in the ventricles fills the ventricular space, the news release stated. 

While checking the pace at which the brain recovered the white matter during abstinence, the researchers found that, in men, the corpus callosum recovered at a rate of one percent per year for each additional year of abstinence. 

In case of less than a year abstinence, it was found that the there was an evidence of increased white matter volume and decreased ventricular volume in women, but not at all in men. However, for people in recovery for more than a year, those signs of recovery disappeared in women and became apparent in men. 

"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," said Mosher Ruiz. "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."

The study, which is published online in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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