Alcoholism and Health


Alcoholism, also called "alcohol addiction" is a sickness that includes alcohol craving and persistent drinking in spite of periodic problems provoked by alcohol abuse, such as discharge or troubles with the law. These are three symptoms of alcoholism:

Craving -- A strong need for alcohol, or obsession with drinking.
Impaired control -- The inability to refuse drinking on any given occasion.
Physical addiction -- Withdrawal state that may include perspiration, nausea, shakiness, and disquiet, when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking.

Brain Shrinkage and Alcoholics’ Behavior

Scientists have observed that the brain shrinkage is more extensive in the cortex of the frontal lobe that is considered to be the place of higher intellectual functions. The increment of this shrinkage commonly comes with age, at least as regarding men.

Periodic imaging of a group of alcohol addicts who persisted drinking over 5 years showed progressive brain shrinkage that essentially exceeded normal age-specific shrinkage. The rate of frontal cortex shrinkage correlates closely with the quantity of used alcohol.

This shrinkage has also been noticed in deeper brain regions, such as brain structures associated with memory and the cerebellum, which helps in coordination and balance regulation.

Reversing the Effects

The main purpose of imaging in alcoholism studies is to reveal changes in particular brain regions that can be correlated with alcohol-related behaviors. Imaging of the cerebellum has connected both decreased blood flow and shrinkage with impaired balance and gait, which in turn may cause falls among older alcohol addicts.

Scientists differ in opinions about the influence this brain shrinkage has on memory loss and problem-solving ability. Some researches have shown no influence, however, others have revealed some loss in those skills, connected with alcohol-induced brain shrinkage. Nevertheless, these effects are commonly reversed with alcohol abstinence. Even if alcohol use is stopped for 3-4 weeks the effects on memory loss and problem-solving ability are reversed.

"More recent advances in imaging techniques are allowing investigators to study alcohol dependence itself. Scientists are beginning to measure alcohol’s effects on mood, emotional states, craving, and cognition while simultaneously assessing metabolic, physiologic, and neurochemical function in the brain. These innovations in imaging technology will help not only the alcohol field, but also all fields of medicine where biology and behavior are so closely linked," said NIAAA Director Enoch Gordis, M.D.

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