Brain Cells Rebound With Alcohol Abstinence

New Cells Can Develop For Years After Quitting

Brain Circuits
Abstinence Can Cause Growth of New Cells. © Getty Images

When alcoholics stop drinking, some of the damage that long-time alcohol consumption does to their brains begins to reverse and they regain some of the cognitive abilities they may have lost.

Scientists have established that the "shrinkage" that alcohol can cause in some regions of the brain that results in cognitive deficits will begin to reverse when alcohol abstinence begins.

A Surge of New Brain Cells

There is some research, however, that indicates that when long-time drinkers stop drinking a surge of new brain cells begins to develop, which could also contribute to the regaining of some cognitive abilities.

In an animal study, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies was the first to report a burst of new brain cell development as a result of abstinence from chronic alcohol consumption.

The Bowles research team of director Dr. Fulton T. Crews and associate Dr. Kim Nixon examined the new cell growth in adult rats that were given enough alcohol over a four-day period to produce alcohol dependence.

Alcohol Damages the Brain

It was Crews and Nixon who first reported in an earlier study that alcohol intoxication had a negative effect on the formation of new neurons in the adult rat hippocampus - a brain region involved in learning and memory.

"When used in excess, alcohol damages brain structure and function. Alcoholics have impairments in the ability to reason, plan or remember," said Crews, also a professor of pharmacology and psychiatry in UNC's School of Medicine.

"A variety of psychological tests show alcoholics have a difficulty and inability to understand negative consequences."

Alcoholism Inhibits New Brain Cells

In their 2004 study, the researchers found that alcohol dependency also inhibited neurogenesis - brain cell development.

However, Crews and Nixon also found that within four-to-five weeks of alcohol abstinence, a pronounced increase in new neuron formation took place in the hippocampus, which included a "twofold burst in brain cell proliferation at day seven of abstinence."

"We looked at dividing cells after our four-day binge model of alcohol dependency and confirmed what we previously observed: When the animals were intoxicated, the measure of dividing cells decreases," said Nixon. "And after abstinence for one week, we saw a huge burst in the number of new cells being born."

Biomarkers Confirm Findings

To confirm their findings, the scientists used several biological markers, including bromodeoxyuridine, BrdU. They injected the rats with BrdU, which "labels" dividing cells by inserting itself into the DNA of a cell during division.

Consequently, BrdU is found only in cells that divided during the two hours that BrdU was active in the rats' systems.

Brain Shrinkage Can Reverse

They also used imagining to show that fluid-filled spaces within the brain - the brain ventricles - increase due to alcohol consumption and those spaces decrease after cessation of drinking.

"And when they stop drinking, you can show in a period of weeks, months, years, the brain grows back, there's a return of metabolic activity, and cognitive tests show a return of function," Crews said.

Number of Brain Cells Not Fixed

In a later 2008 study, Nixon and colleagues found that there were bursts of new cell development in the hippocampus at 48 hours after abstinence and another burst in the hippocampus and regions of the cortex at 7 days of abstinence.

It was long thought that the number of neurons in the adult brain was established early in life, but more recent studies have found that the adult human brain can produce new brain cells throughout life - forming hundreds of thousands of new neurons each month.

"Prior to our work, everyone merely assumed that glia, the supporting cells of the brain, regenerated or that existing brain cells altered their connections," said Nixon. "We have shown a burst in new cell birth that may be part of the brain's recovery after the cessation of alcohol."

Cognitive Function and Alcoholism Treatment

Some research has shown that cognitive deficits in alcoholics can affect the effectiveness of alcoholism treatment programs because they may not be able to comprehend or remember information given to them in the earliest days of recovery.

Cognitive impairment is typically most severe in the first weeks of abstinence, which could make it difficult for alcoholics to benefit from educational and skill-development sessions presented early in treatment.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that treatment programs focus on factors such as improved nutrition, opportunities for exercise and enticing the patient out of social isolation in the early treatment days rather than focusing exclusively on recovery from alcoholism.

One study found that alcoholics entering treatment were not able to recall information that they had just seen in a video. However, research shows that as cognitive functions improve with time, alcoholics are able to make better use of information presented to them in individual and group therapy, educational programs, and 12-step programs.

Physical Activity Helps

Research has found when animals learn they produce more neurons and learn faster. Neurogenesis can also be promoted by increased physical activity, learning experiences and some medications, such as antidepressants.

Therefore, these findings could provide avenues of treatment for alcoholism during recovery with therapies designed to regenerate brain cells. Neuronal regeneration could promote the return of normal cognitive function when alcoholics are able to quit drinking.


Nixon, K, et al. "Temporally Specific Burst in Cell Proliferation Increases Hippocampal Neurogenesis in Protracted Abstinence from Alcohol." The Journal of Neuroscience October 2004

Nixon, K, et al. "Distinct cell proliferation events during abstinence after alcohol dependence: microglia proliferation precedes neurogenesis." Neurobiology of Disease August 2008

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