Scientists have long struggled to find out exactly why heavy drinkers face so much difficulty when trying to quit. Now new studies are shedding light on the subject by revealing that alcohol damages the part of the brain that manages self control.
The damage to this area is directly linked to the amount of levels of alcohol, so that a heavy drinker will have significantly more damage than someone who only drinks occasionally (the brain of a light drinker will still show some damage to the area).
The frontal lobes of the brain contain white matter that is important for the regulation of many behaviors, such as learning, judging, thinking ahead, and monitoring of one's own behavior. When damage occurs in this area, a person's ability to control impulses is severely affected.
For someone who is trying to quit drinking, this makes achieving sobriety an especially difficult task. Scientists have long been aware of the fact that alcohol has an effect on the brain, but weren't sure of how much damage it could do and how it affected other functions.
Now with more advanced brain imaging technologies, scientists can finally determine to what degree that damage occurs. These technologies allow scientists to observe the effect alcohol has on the brain in real time.
They've determined that it has a wide range of effects on the brain, as well as an effect on necessary psychological and intellectual functions.
The human brain is composed of gray and white matter, with gray matter consisting of cells that are vital to brain functions and white matter making the connections between those cells. Alcohol consumption affects both gray and white matter, with the most dramatic effect on the white matter, or frontal lobes.
This is the area that's necessary for changing and regulating behavior, keeping impulses in check, and processing new information. This is also the area of the brain that would need to work the hardest for someone who is trying to stay sober or at the least, limit their alcohol intake.
Scientists used high resolution MR scans to compare the brains of noted alcoholics to people who drink moderately. They found that pathways that connect the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain had the most damage to white matter.
These pathways are what allow a person to learn new information, change or modify behavior, and control impulses. This damage to the frontal lobe pathways also affects the ability of different parts of the brain to communicate with each other.
These new findings are supporting an existing evidence that alcoholics develop irreversible neurological damage. There are many brain functions that are negatively impacted by heavy drinking, and most are not just temporary.
These new findings only make finding help for alcoholics more urgent. With a strong recovery treatment plan and the right kind of support, even those who have been drinking for decades can find a way to stay sober.
Others have found help through a combination of rehab treatment, regular participation in a 12 step group or other support group, addiction counseling, staying healthy with exercise and diet, and treatment for co occurring disorders. Most of all, a person with a drinking problem needs to have a desire to stay sober, and to put in the hard work needed to create drastic and positive change in their life. It can, and has been, done by millions of other alcoholics around the world.