Can My Brain Heal after Alcohol Use?

Can My Brain Heal after Alcohol Use?Alcohol has a profound effect on the brain and its functioning. The brain absorbs alcohol like a sponge and can be seriously damaged by chronic heavy use. However, the brain also has a tremendous and surprising ability to heal itself, adapt and recover from damage, so in many cases, brain health and function will return after a prolonged period of abstinence from alcohol. Quitting drinking is the key because continuing to drink will result in increased damage, and the brain can begin to heal only when it is no longer being exposed to alcohol.

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) offers the following facts regarding alcohol’s effects on the brain:

  • Brain damage is a common side effect of regular, heavy alcohol use.
  • Even moderate use of alcohol can impair cognitive function.
  • Most alcoholics exhibit impaired cognitive function.
  • Computerized structural imaging techniques consistently show that most alcoholics’ brains are smaller and less dense than those of non-alcoholics. Decreased brain volume is found most often in the outer cortex of the frontal lobe, the region responsible for higher cognitive function, and in the cerebellum, the region responsible for balance and certain aspects of learning.
  • The most common alcohol-related effects on brain function involve visual-spatial function and higher cognitive function. Visual-spatial function includes perceiving and remembering the relative locations of objects in space. This function is imperative for a huge variety of activities, such as driving a car. Higher cognitive function involves abstract thought, which is necessary for any type of planning or implementation of plans. This impairment explains the poor work performance seen so often in alcoholics.
  • Alcohol-induced cognitive impairment often results in poor job and academic performance.
  • Alcoholics entering treatment score equally well as non-alcoholic control subjects in overall intelligence but score well below them in terms of specific cognitive abilities.
  • Brain damage is more closely related to length of alcohol use than to amount of alcohol consumed; even light-to-moderate social drinkers who have consumed alcohol regularly for years display cognitive impairment on par with alcoholics.
  • In severe cases, heavy drinkers may develop irreversible brain damage, such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, in which the person is incapable of retaining new information.

Users should be aware of the variety of negative effects alcohol can have on the brain.

Reversing Brain Damage

According to the NIAAA, cognitive impairment often persists for some time in newly recovering alcoholics, but it is usually ultimately reversible provided that the person remains abstinent. After a year or more of sobriety, the brain begins to recover in nearly all areas of cognitive performance and even returns to its original volume and density.

The brain may also adapt and reorganize itself to compensate for damage to certain regions. A study conducted by Dr. Adolf Pfefferbaum used brain imaging technology and found that recovering alcoholics displayed altered patterns of brain activity yet were able to perform tests equally well with non-alcoholic control subjects.

Treatment for Alcoholism and Support for Recovery

The key to restoring brain function that has been lost due to alcohol abuse is to stop drinking. In most cases, the brain will heal, and cognitive abilities will return. However, maintaining abstinence permanently is imperative.

Treatment for alcoholism and support for recovery can be invaluable for helping alcoholics stop drinking and remain sober. If you would like help finding treatment for alcoholism or support for recovery, please call our toll-free, 24 hour helpline today.