What Alcohol Can Do to Women

November/December 2002

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Years of studying men who have drunk as much as two tons of alcohol in their lifetimes tells Edith Sullivan that alcoholism has toxic physical effects. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans show dramatic shrinkage and structural abnormalities—“really nasty-looking brains”—and cognitive tests have demonstrated that these men have impaired problem solving, visuospatial abilities, working memory and balance.

Now, Sullivan, a neuropsychologist, neuroimager and associate research professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is finding that alcoholic women also may have substantial damage.

“With women, we’ve had a harder time finding abnormalities in brain structure,” Sullivan says. “We have to use a different set of tools and dig a little deeper.”

Sullivan’s new study of 34 women used diffusion tensor imaging to reveal abnormalities in the brain’s white matter that were not detectable with conventional MRI scans. The initial findings suggest that “alcoholic women are not so badly off as the men in their motor capacities,” Sullivan says. “But that’s not to say that they’re not impaired, or that women can drink with impunity.” The study also suggests “possible evidence of recovery” as a result of abstaining from alcohol.

Sullivan says the new findings should help patients and agencies understand that alcoholism does result in serious brain and functional abnormalities—that “this is not a three-day problem.” On the plus side, she adds, “I’d be delighted to see that with continued sobriety there is a total reversal of deficits in brain structure and in brain behavior. That may be a touch optimistic, but significant improvement would be something to aspire to.”

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