Imaging techniques have been in widespread use in the scientific community for more than 3 decades. They facilitate noninvasive, in vivo studies of the human brain in both healthy and diseased persons. These brain-imaging techniques have contributed significantly to our understanding of the effects of alcohol abuse and dependence on structural and functional changes in the human brain. A systematic review summarizing these contributions has not previously been conducted, and this is the goal of the current paper.
The databases PubMed, PsycINFO, and PSYNDEX were searched using central key words. Fulfilling the inclusion criteria were 140 functional and structural imaging studies, together comprising data from more than 7,000 patients and controls. The structural imaging techniques we considered were cranial computerized tomography and various magnetic resonance imaging–based techniques, including voxel-based morphometry, deformation-based morphometry, diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging, and diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging. The functional methods considered were magnetic resonance spectroscopy, positron emission tomography, single photon emission computed tomography, and functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Results from studies using structural imaging techniques have revealed that chronic alcohol use is accompanied by volume reductions of gray and white matter, as well as microstructural disruption of various white matter tracts. These changes are partially reversible following abstinence. Results from functional imaging methods have revealed metabolic changes in the brain, lower glucose metabolism, and disruptions of the balance of neurotransmitter systems. Additionally, functional imaging methods have revealed increased brain activity in the mesocorticolimbic system in response to alcohol-themed pictures relative to nondrug-associated stimuli, which might be of predictive value with regard to relapse.
There has been tremendous progress in the development of imaging technologies. Use of these technologies has clearly demonstrated the structural and functional brain abnormalities that can occur with chronic alcohol use. The study of the alcoholic brain provides an heuristic model which furthers our understanding of neurodegenerative changes in general, as well as their partial reversibility with sustained abstinence. Additionally, functional imaging is poised to become an important tool for generating predictions about individual brain functioning, which can then be used as a basis for personalized medicine.
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