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APA: Young Adult Alcohol Abusers Show Changes on Brain Scans


SAN FRANCISCO -- Changes in the brains of young alcohol abusers appear to occur even though neuropsychologoical tests fail to reveal deficiencies.

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 22 -- Changes in the brains of young alcohol abusers appear to occur even though neuropsychologoical tests fail to reveal deficiencies.

The same areas of the brain in these 21- to 25-year-old self-identified heavy drinkers that show diminished changes on imaging are the areas that are affected in older patients with pronounced neurological deficits, found Josephine Wilson, Ph.D., of Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and colleagues.

"This is an early warning signal that these changes are taking place at an early age," said Dr. Wilson, who presented her findings at the of the American Psychological Association meeting.

Suzan Streichenwein, M.D., a psychiatrist in West Palm Beach, Fla., commented that "it really is scary to see these same changes in the brain scans of these young men that we see in patients with alcohol-related dementia."

Dr. Wilson and colleagues recruited 20 men for the study. Ten conceded to consuming 25 of more alcoholic beverages a week, and were placed in the drinker group. Ten other age-matched controls who did not drink were also included. They were tested after the investigators made sure the men were not under the influence of recreational drugs or psychotropic medication nor had a history of traumatic brain injury.

The tests included a battery of neuropsychological studies as well as FDG-PET imaging. The participants all refrained from drinking for 24 hours prior to the two-day test period. They were paid for their participation in the study. On the first day of the study the man had urine and blood testing, as well as a physical examination.

They also underwent neuropsychological testing that included the WAIS-III (digit span, block design). The California Verbal Learning Test, the National Adult Reading Test, the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, a fine motor test and the Grip Strength Test. The FDG-PET scan was also performed on the first day of tests.

On the second day, the urine and blood tests were repeated and participants were given MRI and FDG-PET scans, which were coregistered. During FDG-PET imaging the participants underwent Letter-Number Sequencing Test for 20 minutes.

"No statistically significant differences between drinkers and abstainers were found for any of the neuropsychological measures obtained," Dr. Wilson reported.

However, there were several changes seen in the brain imaging. She observed statistically different function in the right cerebral hemisphere in the primary visual cortex (P<0.001); in the fusiform gyrus of the temporal lobe (P<0.01) and in the left cerebral hemisphere in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (P<0.01).

Additional changes were seen during the Letter-Number Sequencing Test, Dr. Wilson said in her poster presentation. Those statistically significant changes were observed in the anterior lobe of the left cerebellar hemisphere (P<0.001); and in the right cerebellar hemisphere in three frontal lobes -- the superior frontal gyrus (P<0.001), the precentral gyrus (P<0.001) and the middle frontal gyrus (P<0.01).

She said the areas that differed between the brains of the drinkers and non-drinkers appeared to reflect similar changes reported by other researchers in older drinkers.

"PET appears to be a highly sensitive technique for detecting early functional changes in the brain due to alcohol abuse," she said.

Dr. Streichenwein, a former professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, said she would like to have seen studies of reaction times which might have shown a difference between the two groups aside from the differences on the imaging tests. She also said a study that would determine whether treatment for alcoholism would results in improvement of brain functioning would also be welcome.

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