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Investigating 'brain shrinkage' in alcoholics

Previous studies have demonstrated that the brains of alcoholics are smaller, lighter and "shrunken" when compared to nonalcoholic brains. Symposium speakers at the October 2004 Congress for the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism in Mannheim, Germany reviewed what is known about the causes, consequences and clinical implications of alcohol-related brain shrinkage. Proceedings are published in the June issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"The outer layer of brain, also called the cerebral cortex or gray matter, controls most complex mental activities," explained Clive Harper, symposium organizer and professor of neuropathology at the University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. "The cortex is filled with nerve cells, also called neurons, that connect by single long fibres to different cortical regions and other neurons deep inside the brain and spinal cord. These nerve fibres make up white matter, which comprises the 'hard wiring' of the brain. Most of the fibres are insulated by a material called 'myelin' that is similar to the plastic coating around electrical wires. Nerve cells also have shorter and more numerous fibres or processes called dendrites with many fine branching processes ?similar to the root system of a tree ?that allow them to 'talk' with neighbouring neurons, often as many as five to 10,000 at a time."

Alcohol appears to be particularly damaging to the "white matter" or "hard wiring" of the brain, and can also cause shrinkage or retraction of neuronal dendrites; however, the damage appears to be at least partially reversible with abstinence.

"The aim of this symposium was to bring together scientists from different disciplines to compare results from human and animal studies of the effects of alcohol on the brain," said Harper. "Our objective was to better understand the mechanisms underlying alcohol's damage, with the ultimate goal of identifying how to prevent and/or
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Source:Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research


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