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Surprising Science

Can the Brain Recover From Alcoholism?

Evidence shows that heavy alcohol use modifies the structure and physiology of the brain, although the extent of recovery after years of abstinence is remains uncertain.

What’s the Latest Development?

Recent brain scans have revealed that chronic alcoholism can damage the cerebellum, the part of the brain that plays an important role in regulating motor control, attention and language, says Richard Ridderinkhof, professor of neurocognitive development and aging at the University of Amsterdam. “It can also cause the prefrontal cortex to shrink and degrade, potentially impairing decision-making skills and social behavior.” The white matter connecting brain regions can also be damaged.

What’s the Big Idea?

To what extent can the brain recover from prolonged alcoholism? After comparing former alcoholics who have long abstained from drink to those who have always drunk minimally, researchers believe that brain regions can return to their original volume and that connections across different regions can be repaired. In some regions, however, the damage caused by alcohol abuse appears permanent. The hippocampus, for example, which regulates long-term memory and spacial navigation, does not seem to recover. 


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