While studies have shown the brain is impaired by abuse of alcohol—e.g., the volume of brain matter shrinks or atrophies—research has also demonstrated alcohol detox can reverse this process in a relatively short time.
Indeed, the head of one study, Gabriele Ende, a professor of medical physics at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany, said within 14 days of detoxification, “the brain bounces back, replacing much of the volume. The cerebellum, the region of the brain devoted to movement and fine motor skills, is among the fastest to respond.”
She added, “The loss of brain tissue in alcoholics already had been linked to problems including memory loss, difficulty concentrating and impulsive behavior.”
Her research sought to determine whether or not these problems could be reversed. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) was used to scan the subjects’ brains—49 people admitted into an inpatient treatment facility for alcohol use disorder—both during the first 24 hours of their detox and then two weeks later.
Ende then compared those brain images with MRI scans from 55 other individuals of the same age and genders as the alcoholic patients.
What they discovered was that different brain regions were found to recover at different rates. For example, the cerebellum had resumed normal functioning two weeks after detox. However, the brain regions involved in more complex thinking recovered more slowly, not showing full recovery at the two-week mark.
Ende explained, “It is striking that there is an obvious improvement of motor skills soon after cessation of drinking and detox, which is paralleled by our observation of a rapid volume recovery of the cerebellum. Higher cognitive functions, like divided attention, which are processed in specific cortical areas, take a longer time to recover, and this seems to be mirrored in the observed slower recovery of brain volumes of these areas.”
In a related study by B.P. Rogers et al published in 2011 found there were fewer functional connections between the frontal lobe and the cerebellum in those with alcohol use disorder, and the cerebellum remains dysfunctional for at least a week after a person’s last drink.
The mechanism whereby alcohol affects brain volume and produces associated changes in the brain has not, as of yet, been precisely determined, according to Natalie May Zahr, a research scientist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.
“Several processes likely account for changes in brain tissue volume observed through bouts of drinking and abstinence over the course of alcoholism. One process likely reflects true, irreversible neuronal cell death, while another process likely reflects shrinkage, a mechanism that would allow for volume changes in both negative and positive directions, and could account for brain volume recovery with abstinence.”
Still, overall, Zahr concludes, this research (in conjunction with those related studies mentioned above) presents an encouraging perspective for those seeking recovery from alcohol dependency or abuse.
“This study offers recovering alcoholics a sense of hope ― hope that even within two weeks of abstinence, the recovering individual should be able to observe improvements in brain functioning that may allow for better insight and thus ability to remain sober. Indeed, a minimal of brain healing may be necessary before the addict is able to achieve the control necessary to maintain continued abstinence.”
The most important step for anyone seeking to recover from the effects of alcohol dependency or abuse is to seek help, and medical detox—per this and other scientific evidence—is clearly a promising way to start.
 Rogers, Baxter P., Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, Nov. 15, 2011