Good News: Your Brain Can Recover From Heavy Drinking

It requires total abstinence, according to new research.
Men drinking shots
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In good news for drinkers, researchers in the US have discovered that the brains of people who suffer from alcohol use disorder and abstained from booze for roughly 7.3 months displayed significant structural improvements, suggesting remarkable powers of recovery are possible. The “results support the adaptive and beneficial effects of sustained sobriety on brain structural recovery,” the study says.


Long-term alcohol consumption can cause cognitive impairment and brain structural changes. While it’s known that parts of the brain can recover from abstinence, this particular study has been able to more precisely demonstrate the brain’s pretty sick ability to self-repair, and over a much longer time period than previously measured.

The study used MRI to measure the participants’ brains, all of whom suffered with alcohol use disorder, which is the clinical term for people who suffer from alcohol-related problems. The researchers examined the cortical thickness – referring to the brain’s outer layer, which plays an important part in cognitive function – over 7.3 months of abstinence. “Cortical thickness is proposed to reflect the number and density of cells in a cortical column and/or neuronal cell body size, the number of spines and synapses and the extent of myelination,” the study states.

The study also showed promising results for those abstaining from booze for an even shorter time period. “Our team and other researchers have observed rapid recovery over two to four weeks of abstinence, for brain volume in multiple regions across the brain, in those with an alcohol use disorder,” Dr Timothy Durazzo, a clinical neuropsychologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells VICE. 


“We observed a more rapid recovery of cortical thickness over the first month of abstinence, than over the ensuing 6-7 months, in 19 of 34 brain regions measured. Our study is the first to demonstrate such a recovery pattern for thickness of the cerebral cortex.”

Wondering if this means you’ll be blessed with brainiac abilities if you abstain for No Alcohol November or Dry Jan? Bad news if you’re a moderate drinker – this study doesn’t quite apply to you, according to Durazzo. All the research subjects were consuming an average of 13 drinks a day over 12 months prior to participating the study.

“It is not likely that individuals who consume alcohol at the suggested level for males and females will incur significant compromise of their brain structure and cognitive functions,” he says, adding that the injuries seen in the brain in those with “alcohol use disorder or high-risk drinking” is not solely down to the effects of booze.

“Co-occurring conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking can independently contribute to, or worsen, the brain injury and compromised cognitive functions associated with alcohol use disorder or high-risk drinking. Poor diet and sleep and lack of exercise may also contribute,” he explains. 

“Effective treatment of such co-occurring conditions, and improved nutrition, sleep and exercise may enhance short-and-long-term recovery of brain biology and other organ systems with abstinence.”

Still, the study shows there is light at the end of the tunnel for anyone suffering with, or in recovery from alcohol use disorder. If that’s you or someone you love, it seems that – at least from a physiological perspective – there’s no need to feel as if the damage is already done.