Alcohol-induced damage in the brain continues for a few weeks after the consumption of alcohol has stopped, according to a study.

Although the harmful effects of alcohol on the brain are widely known, the structural changes observed are very heterogeneous, said researchers from the Central Institute of Mental Health of Mannheim, in Germany.

Diagnostic markers are lacking to characterise brain damage induced by alcohol, especially at the beginning of abstinence, a critical period due to the high rate of relapse that it presents.

Now, researchers have detected, by means of magnetic resonance, how the damage in the brain continues during the first weeks of abstinence, although the consumption of alcohol ceases.

The research, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that six weeks after stopping drinking there are still changes in the white matter of the brain.

“Until now, nobody could believe that in the absence of alcohol the damage in the brain would progress,” said Santiago Canals, of the Institute of Neurosciences in Spain.

Ninety patients with an average age of 46 years hospitalised because of an alcohol use disorder participated in this study.

To compare the brain magnetic resonances of these patients, a control group without alcohol problems was used, consisting of 36 men with an average age of 41 years.

“An important aspect of the work is that the group of patients participating in our research are hospitalised in a detoxification programme, and their consumption of addictive substances is controlled, which guarantees that they are not drinking any alcohol.

“Therefore, the abstinence phase can be followed closely,” said Canals.

Another differential characteristic of this study is that it has been carried out in parallel in a rat model with preference for alcohol, which allows to monitor the transition from normal to alcohol dependence in the brain, a process that is not possible to see in humans, said first author Silvia de Santis.

The damages observed during the period of abstinence affect mainly the right hemisphere and the frontal area of the brain and reject the conventional idea that the microstructural alterations begin to revert to normal values immediately after abandoning the consumption of alcohol.