Background: We report on structural brain changes during a 5-year period in healthy control and alcoholic men.
Methods: Alcoholic patients (n = 16), from an initial group of 58 who underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging scanning while in treatment, were rescanned with the same acquisition sequence approximately 5 years later. Control subjects (n = 28) spanning the same age range also were scanned twice at a comparable interval. Changes in brain volume were corrected for error due to differences in head placement between scans and expressed as slopes (cubic centimeters per year), percentage of change over baseline for the control subjects, and standardized change for the alcoholic patients. The alcoholic patients varied considerably in the percentage of time that symptoms of alcohol dependence were present and in the amount of alcohol consumed during follow-up.
Results: The cortical gray matter diminished in volume over time in the control subjects, most prominently in the prefrontal cortex, while the lateral and third ventricles enlarged. The alcoholic patients showed similar age-related changes with a greater rate of gray matter volume loss than the control subjects in the anterior superior temporal lobe. The amount of alcohol consumed during follow-up predicted the rate of cortical gray matter volume loss, as well as sulcal expansion. The rate of ventricular enlargement in alcoholic patients who maintained virtual sobriety was comparable to that in the control subjects.
Conclusions: During a 5-year period, brain volume shrinkage is exaggerated in the prefrontal cortex in normal aging with additional loss in the anterior superior temporal cortex in alcoholism. The association of cortical gray matter volume reduction with alcohol consumption over time suggests that continued alcohol abuse results in progressive brain tissue volume shrinkage.