Brain Damage and Alcohol Related Dementia

by Christine Kennard Health Professional

Researchers from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Nottingham have, for the first time, identified the structural damage in the brain caused by chronic and excessive alcohol abuse. The brains of twenty people with a
diagnosis of alcohol abuse/dependence were compared to 20 non-alcoholic brains post-mortem (after death).

They found molecular damage in the pre-frontal lobe of the brain, an area which controls executive functions such as planning, judgement, working memory, selective attention and control of behavior; symptoms you will recognise as those of dementia.

The scientists involved in this ground breaking research now want to determine what type of alcohol produces these changes, what biological processes are involved and if the process of damage occurs in other areas of the brain. It is hoped that new therapies and drugs can reverse the damage, improve the quality of life of people with chronic alcohol abuse problems, and reduce death rates within this population.

Alcohol related dementia is the global and more commonly used medical term used to describe a type of alcohol related presentation of different symptoms. Where patients have frontal lobe damage their behavior will be disinhibited, they do not see what consequences their behavior has on others as well as experiencing problems with executive functions.

In Korsakoff's syndrome the destruction of areas of the brain where changes in memory, primarily a loss of short term memory is the main symptom. A classic symptom is confabulation where the affected person will make up information to fill the gaps in their memory. Vitamin B1, also known as Thiamine, influences brain and nervous system function and Thiamine can be given to reduce symptoms if alcohol consumption can be stopped or reduced significantly.

Most presentations of alcohol dementia are somewhere along the spectrum between a global dementia and Korsakoff's syndrome. Symptoms involve poor memory but also include language difficulties, apathy and irritability. Depression is common in people with alcohol problems and this can sometimes mask a more accurate diagnosis of dementia.

Increased alcohol consumption and increasing numbers of people with alcohol abuse problems means medical staff are seeing many more people with this type of dementia.

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Amaia M. Erdozain, Benito Morentin, Lynn Bedford, Emma King, David Tooth, Charlotte Brewer, Declan Wayne, Laura Johnson, Henry K. Gerdes, Peter Wigmore, Luis F. Callado, Wayne G. Carter. Alcohol-Related Brain Damage in Humans. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (4): e93586 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093586

Christine Kennard
Meet Our Writer
Christine Kennard

Christine Kennard wrote about Alzheimer's for HealthCentral. She has many years of experience in private and public sector nursing care homes for people with dementia. She has worked in a variety of hospital, public and private health settings and specialized in community nursing. Christine is qualified in group analytic psychotherapy, is registered in general and mental health nursing and has a Masters degree.