BACKGROUND: Striatal structures are involved in dopaminergic alcohol reward mechanisms and aspects of motor control. Basal forebrain structures hold cholinergic mechanisms influencing memory formation, vulnerable to chronic alcoholism; however, alcoholism's effect on volumes of these structures has seldom been considered with in vivo measurement. METHODS: We measured bilateral volumes of caudate nucleus, putamen, nucleus accumbens, and medial septal/diagonal band (MS/DB) in 25 men with alcohol dependence and 51 age-matched control men. Six alcoholic subjects had been drinking recently, and 19 had been sober. RESULTS: Volumes of caudate and putamen were smaller in the alcoholics than in the control subjects, regardless of length of sobriety. Recent drinkers showed greater deficits in nucleus accumbens than sober alcoholics. Putamen volume was positively correlated with grip strength; MS/DB volume was positively correlated with verbal working memory independently of the negative association between age-standardized MS/DB and age in alcoholics. CONCLUSIONS: Caudate and putamen volume deficits occur and endure in chronic alcoholism. Nucleus accumbens might be especially sensitive to recent alcohol exposure. Striatal volumes should be considered in functional imaging studies of alcohol craving that target striatal brain regions. The age-alcohol interaction for MS/DB volumes is consistent with a cholinergic mechanism for the working memory impairment observed in the alcoholics.
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