When someone develops an addiction, they run the risk of not only seeing their personality and behavior change but also the way their brain functions. Scientists have seen a noticeable difference between an addicted brain and a non-addicted brain especially in terms of control mechanisms.
Alcohol addiction can actually change brain circuits and even the programming of critical areas of the brain on a molecular level. Alcohol has proven to have long term effects on the brain and cause serious damage. Although some of the effects of alcohol on the brain can be reversed with treatment and abstinence, there could be some brain changes that are long-lasting and potentially irreversible.
Addiction And The Brain
Researchers have studied the frontal cortex of the brain, a crucial area that is involved with judgment and decision-making. Alcohol is known to impair judgment but studies have shown that it actually changes the programming of these functions in the frontal cortex especially in cases of chronic alcohol abuse. Frequent and excessive drinking can also disrupt important gene mechanisms in the brain.
The process of gene expression in which differently cells work differently because of specific genes that are turned on becomes interrupted with alcoholism. The way that alcohol can change gene expression in the brain can lead to many of the normal traits of addiction such as tolerance, physical dependence and craving as well as neurotoxicity and brain damage caused by chronic alcoholism. Researchers are hoping to determine which genes are incorrectly turned on or off in the brains of alcoholics through the development of gene array technology.
Gene Expression And Loss Of White Matter
Through the studies using gene array technology scientists have discovered that out of 4,000 genes that were analyzed 163 of them differed by 40 percent or more between alcoholics and non-alcoholics. The majority of the genes that changed due to chronic alcoholism were related to the generation of white matter in the brain called myelin.
This has led researchers to believe that alcohol has a particularly damaging effect on the generation of myelin. White matter loss may result in cognitive deficiencies as myelin acts as insulation between information-carrying cells within the brain. Researchers have found significant evidence that alcoholism causes extensive reprogramming of the brain especially through its effects on gene expression.
The circuitry of the brain involves massive bundles of nerve fibers that interconnect neurons in different regions of the brain. Myelin coats these fibers and is essential for the transmission of electrical signals. Damage to myelin will impair any cognitive function that depends on information transmission through the communication cables. The disruption of white matter caused by alcohol consumption can lead to loss of memory, slowed thinking, impaired problem solving and decision making.
White matter connections to the cerebral cortex and deep brain structures are damaged by alcohol making it more difficult to perform these important mental functions. The effect of alcohol on white matter is especially pronounced in some fiber tracts known to be necessary for higher level thinking and memory as well as other functions often impaired in alcoholics.
Recovering From Damage
While alcohol is known to have severely damaging effects on the brain especially through gene expression and loss of critical white matter, it is possible for alcoholics to repair some of the damage. Studies have shown that professional treatment, abstinence and aerobic exercise can help prevent some of the loss of white matter that alcoholics frequently experience.
In some severe cases of alcoholism, patients can develop brain damage that is too difficult to treat but in most instances the loss of white matter can slow or stop. It is important for chronic alcohol abusers to receive proper treatment and maintain a healthy lifestyle in order to repair some of the brain damage caused by excessive drinking.
photo credit: katsrcool (Kool Cats Photography) 1,000,000 + View via photopin cc