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Investigating 'brain shrinkage' in alcoholics

ning in vivo brain imaging and animal research allows for an unprecedented examination of underlying mechanisms of damage.

"Alcohol dependence follows a longitudinal course," explained Harper, "from initiation to development of dependence, maintenance, withdrawal, and more often than not, a return to drinking. Throughout this course, the brain undergoes significant biochemical and structural modifications, some for the better and some for the worse, depending on when an individual is studied. Because human alcoholics cannot be forced to drink or not, researchers have no control over when in their course an alcoholic can be studied in the laboratory. By contrast, animal models of alcohol dependence can be exquisitely controlled, in terms of alcohol-exposure amounts, time in development of exposure, withdrawal, nutrition, and the like. When we combine the two approaches, we then have a means of translating knowledge about the change in the condition of the brain from the clinic to the laboratory and back to the clinic."

- Both gene and protein changes can occur in the brains of alcoholics.

"Even after death, tissues can reveal the secrets of diseases," said Harper. "For this research, brain tissues were obtained, with ethical consent, from autopsies on alcoholic subjects. Scientists used modern molecular techniques to study the control mechanisms (genes) and building blocks (proteins) of the main component of white matter ?the myelin. They found that the expression of genes that control the manufacture of structural proteins of the myelin was reduced in the alcoholic cases. In addition, the content of these proteins in the white matter was reduced. These changes likely alter the structure and function of the myelin sheath and ultimately the conduction of nerve impulses."

- It is important for people who abuse alcohol to realize that some of the damage can be reversed.

"Neuropsychological studies have shown that some brain functi
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Source:Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research


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