close-up shot of depressed young man with glass of whiskey

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PALO ALTO, Calif. — Too much alcohol can have a devastating effect on the human brain. Studies have shown that even one beverage can damage a drinker’s mind. For those battling alcohol use disorder (AUD), a new study finds there is hope of repairing severe brain damage due to heavy drinking — but it will take time. Scientists have discovered that prolonged sobriety can lead to significant recovery of brain thickness. Specifically, avoiding alcohol for 7.3 months can help the brain heal from the adverse effects of alcohol.

For years, researchers have known that chronic alcohol use can lead to a worrying thinning of the cerebral cortex — the brain’s outer layer responsible for many complex behaviors and functions. However, what remained a mystery was whether this damage was reversible and, if so, to what extent.

In an unprecedented effort, a team of neuroscientists in California tracked the brains of individuals with AUD over approximately seven months of abstinence. Utilizing high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they meticulously measured the cortical thickness — akin to measuring the bark on a tree — for signs of recovery.

The findings were striking. Out of 34 brain regions of interest, a significant healing process unfolded in 25, with the rate of recovery being most pronounced in the first month of abstinence. This suggests that just like a cut on the skin, the brain starts to mend itself rather quickly once alcohol is out of the picture.

Woman drinking alcohol alone, stressed, depressed
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The study also shed light on how certain health conditions linked to poor blood vessel health — collectively termed proatherogenic conditions — could slow this recovery process. Participants with issues like hypertension or diabetes showed less improvement in brain thickness, hinting that the overall health of our blood vessels could be a key player in the brain’s ability to bounce back.

Additionally, the scientists observed that heavy smokers within the AUD group had a tougher time regaining brain thickness, particularly in the frontal regions of the brain, which are essential for functions such as decision-making and impulse control.

After the seven-month period, many in the AUD group showed cortical thickness measurements that nearly matched those of individuals without a history of alcohol misuse. This remarkable rebound was less evident in those with proatherogenic conditions, underscoring the interconnectedness of overall health and brain recovery.

The study’s findings illuminate the brain’s impressive resilience and underscore the benefits of sustained sobriety. The insights gained also highlight the potential impacts of smoking and cardiovascular health on the brain’s recovery trajectory following AUD.

As we begin to understand the remarkable plasticity of the human brain, there is newfound hope for individuals striving for recovery from alcohol dependence. This research not only advances our scientific knowledge but also brings a powerful message of hope: that stepping away from alcohol may lead the way to not just a healthier lifestyle, but also a tangible healing of the brain itself.

The findings are published in the journal Alcohol.

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