AIMS: The brain volume of chronic drinkers is known to partially recover with abstinence from alcohol. To investigate the relative contribution of grey and white brain matter to this process, magnetic resonance imaging and brain tissue segmentation was used to study brain tissue in acute alcohol withdrawal and abstinence in seven alcohol-dependent men. METHODS: The patients were studied on three occasions; within 48 h after the last drink and approximately one month and two and a half months later. Total brain tissue class volumes [grey matter (GM) and white matter (WM) and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)] were measured. Eleven healthy volunteers were scanned twice to serve as a control group. The alcohol-dependent patients were investigated with regard to drinking variables, neuropsychological performance and blood biochemistry. RESULTS: In the alcohol-dependent patients, intracranial volume and total GM volume did not change between scan occasions, except in a single patient who demonstrated a GM increase of 4.8% (4.2% relative volume) between scans 2 and 3. For all patients, the increase in total WM volume ranged between 1.9 and 22.4% (absolute volumes) and 2.1 and 21.2% (relative volumes). Between scans 2 and 3, the increase in total WM volume ranged between 0.3 and 13.2% (absolute volumes), and between 1.5 and 14.0% (relative volumes). One patient resumed drinking and was investigated a second time during acute withdrawal. In this patient, the measured decrease of 8.1 and 8.5% of absolute and relative WM volumes corresponded to the size of the volume increase between scans 1 and 2. CSF, GM and WM volumes in the healthy subjects were constant over time. CONCLUSIONS: The results demonstrate that changes in brain volume during short-term abstinence in chronic alcohol-dependent patients are confined to the WM. The time limit of WM volume restitution is variable and continues longer than 3 weeks after withdrawal.
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