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Smoking Harms Brain's Recovery from Alcoholism

Physical, Cognitive Recovery Hampered in Smokers

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Updated March 17, 2006

Updated March 17, 2006
Brain damaged caused by chronic alcohol abuse can begin to heal after a person stops drinking, but for those who continue to smoke tobacco, their brains show less improvement in both function and brain cell health.

A study conducted by researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center found that smoking appears to interfere with the brain's ability to recover from the effects of chronic alcohol abuse.

After one month of not drinking alcohol, alcoholics who smoked showed significantly less improvement than those who did not smoke in both brain function and neurochemical markers of brain cell health.

"This study suggests that for better brain recovery, it may be beneficial for alcoholics in early abstinence to stop smoking as well," concludes Dieter Meyerhoff, Dr.rer.nat., a radiology researcher at SFVAMC and the senior author of the study. Meyerhoff is also a professor of radiology at the University of California, San Francisco. The researchers studied 25 recovering alcoholics – 14 smokers and 11 nonsmokers – using spectroscopic imaging, a magnetic resonance imaging technique to measure for two metabolites: N-acetylaspartate (NAA), a marker of neuronal viability, and choline, a marker of cell membrane health.

After one month of sobriety, their brains were re-examined, and the brains of the nonsmokers showed significant increases in NAA and choline.

"We did not see the same pattern or magnitude of recovery in chronic smoking alcoholics who continued to smoke during this early stage in recovery," reports lead author Timothy Durazzo, PhD, a research scientist at SFVAMC. "In fact, in the smoking alcoholic group, we saw a decrease in NAA and choline-containing metabolites in parietal and occipital white matter." The parietal lobe plays an important role in sensory processing and object manipulation. The occipital lobe controls visual processing.

Brain Recovery Absent

"We observed no short-term cognitive improvements among the smoking recovering alcoholics," says Durazzo. "And the relationships between metabolic brain recovery and neurocognition were not as pronounced, and in many cases were absent, in the smoking group." Meyerhoff said professionals who treat alcoholism may wish to consider adding smoking cessation to their usual treatment plans.

"This may be a lot to ask from an alcoholic individual going through drastic brain chemical imbalances in early recovery," he acknowledges. "But it may lead to faster brain recovery."

Cigarettes, Alcohol 'Go Together'

Durazzo points out that while severe, such a strategy might be effective because among alcoholics, "cigarettes and alcohol tend to go together. One may elicit cravings for the other. So if you are able to give up both at the same time, it may increase your chances of staying sober, because you don't have one substance serving as a trigger for use of the other." The researchers plan to study an entirely different group of smoking and nonsmoking recovering alcoholics to determine whether other health factors, such as diet, exercise, and general health, affect the brain's recovery from alcohol abuse.

Source: The study appears in the March 2006 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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