We used computer-aided magnetic resonance image analysis and an age-normed battery of neuropsychological tests to measure brain atrophy and cognitive function in 14 older abstinent alcoholic men and 11 older controls in the expectation that these subject groups would show the greatest and most persistent cerebral effects consequent to chronic alcoholism. The abstinent alcoholics exhibited cognitive impairments (primarily in memory and visual-spatial-motor skills) compared with the controls. In contrast, we found no difference in global cerebral atrophy between the groups, although two alcoholics had extensive atrophy compared with all other subjects. However, there was a stronger association between age and ventricular dilation in the alcoholic sample compared with controls. We conclude that a substrate other than magnetic resonance imaging-detectable global atrophy must underlie the persistent cognitive impairments evident in the sampled alcoholics. Furthermore, if there are global atrophic changes in the brain associated with chronic alcoholism, these effects are not ubiquitous and/or may be reversible in most patients with sufficient abstinence.