The good news for people in recovery is that abstinence can begin to reverse some of the negative effects that alcohol has on the brain. Alcoholics may have problems with learning and memory after years of abuse but recovery helps improve their performance and cognitive ability. With enough time spent completely sober and going through the neccessary steps of rehab it is possible for an alcoholic to once again have a healthy and more functional brain.
Impaired Cognitive Functions and Alcohol
The fact that alcohol affects the brain is obvious even for mild drinkers, but the consequences of long-term drinking on the brain can be more severe. There are a number of familiar short term effects of alcohol such as slurred speech, difficulty walking, slow reaction times, blackouts and memory lapses which are all symptoms of temporarily impaired cognitive function. The long-term effects of alcohol on the brain can lead to more lasting and sometimes permanent cognitive impairment such as alcohol-related dementia. Alcoholics tend to exhibit the adverse effects that alcohol has on cognitive functions or mental activities that involve acquiring, storing, retrieving and using information. Because of the effects on the brain, adult alcoholics tend to perform poorly at work and young people with addictions struggle with their academic performance. A significant proportion of chronic heavy drinkers can end up with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome also known as dementia. This disorder represents devastating, often irreversible damage which causes the patient to be unable to remember new information for more than a few seconds.
Reversing Alcohol's Damage on the Brain
The sooner an alcoholic gets help for their disease, the more likely they are to experience a full recovery from cognitive damage. Certain kinds of alcohol-related cognitive impairment are reversible with a long period of abstinence. Adults who have just entered into alcohol recovery tend to show significant deficits in cognitive abilities such as problem-solving, short-term memory, and visuospatial abilities. However, after remaining abstinent a recovering alcoholic will begin to recover brain function over a period of several months to a year. Long-term abstinent alcoholics show improvements in working memory, visuospatial functioning, and attention with significant increases in brain volume compared with alcoholics who have relapsed after a period of abstinence. Permanent sobriety seems to have the most positive effect on an alcoholic's cognitive abilities can help reverse most of the damage that has been caused to the brain. More severe problems like dementia can be irreversible in many cases but early treatment for alcoholism can help repair the brain before its symptoms appear.
While in recovery, alcoholics may struggle initially in the first few weeks of treatment when their cognitive impairment tends to be the most severe. Their problems with cognitive functioning can make it difficult to benefit from educational and skill development sessions in rehab especially when they are dealing with impaired memory. Eventually, however, cognitive function tends to improve after several months and patients in rehab can retain more information and make better use of the education they are provided. As their brain damage begins to reverse due to abstinence, people in recovery are able to benefit more from their individual and group counseling as well as their educational or twelve step programs. Even though alcohol can have severely damaging effects on the brain, an alcoholic's problems with cognitive impairment are typically not permanent.