Investigating the causal nature of the relationship of subcortical brain volume with smoking and alcohol use

Br J Psychiatry. 2022 Jul;221(1):377-385. doi: 10.1192/bjp.2021.81.


Background: Structural variation in subcortical brain regions has been linked to substance use, including the most commonly used substances nicotine and alcohol. Pre-existing differences in subcortical brain volume may affect smoking and alcohol use, but there is also evidence that smoking and alcohol use can lead to structural changes.

Aims: We assess the causal nature of the complex relationship of subcortical brain volume with smoking and alcohol use, using bi-directional Mendelian randomisation.

Method: Mendelian randomisation uses genetic variants predictive of a certain 'exposure' as instrumental variables to test causal effects on an 'outcome'. Because of random assortment at meiosis, genetic variants should not be associated with confounders, allowing less biased causal inference. We used summary-level data of genome-wide association studies of subcortical brain volumes (nucleus accumbens, amygdala, caudate, hippocampus, pallidum, putamen and thalamus; n = 50 290) and smoking and alcohol use (smoking initiation, n = 848 460; cigarettes per day, n = 216 590; smoking cessation, n = 378 249; alcoholic drinks per week, n = 630 154; alcohol dependence, n = 46 568). The main analysis, inverse-variance weighted regression, was verified by a wide range of sensitivity methods.

Results: There was strong evidence that liability to alcohol dependence decreased amygdala and hippocampal volume, and smoking more cigarettes per day decreased hippocampal volume. From subcortical brain volumes to substance use, there was no or weak evidence for causal effects.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that heavy alcohol use and smoking can causally reduce subcortical brain volume. This adds to accumulating evidence that alcohol and smoking affect the brain, and likely mental health, warranting more recognition in public health efforts.

Keywords: Mendelian randomisation; Smoking; alcohol dependence; alcohol use; subcortical brain volume.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism* / epidemiology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Substance-Related Disorders*