Regional brain volume changes in alcohol-dependent individuals during early abstinence: associations with relapse following treatment

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Cross-sectional structural magnetic resonance (MR) imaging studies of individuals with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) report that those who relapse after treatment, relative to individuals who maintain a period of extended abstinence, show greater morphological abnormalities in multiple brain regions near the inception of treatment, particularly in the frontal lobe. However, given the cross-sectional design of previous studies, it is unclear if the baseline morphological differences between future abstainers and relapsers were maintained over the course of early recovery. The primary goal of this study was to determine if frontal lobe tissue volume recovery during early abstinence is associated with long-term abstinence from alcohol. We compared frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital grey matter (GM) and white matter (WM) volumes, at 1 and 4 weeks of abstinence, among individuals who resumed alcohol consumption within 12 months of treatment (Relapsers) and those who showed sustained abstinence over 12 months following treatment (Abstainers). At 1 and 4 weeks of sobriety, both Abstainers and Relapsers demonstrated significantly smaller GM volumes than Controls in the majority of ROIs, but Relapsers exhibited significantly smaller bilateral frontal GM volumes than Abstainers. No significant group differences were observed for any WM region of interest. The persistent bilateral frontal GM volume deficits in Relapsers over 4 weeks from last alcohol use may represent an endophenotype that differentiates those who respond more favorably to the typical psychosocial and pharmacological interventions provided for AUD.

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