Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Living Brain


Rosenbloom, M. J., & Pfefferbaum, A. (2008). Magnetic resonance imaging of the living brain: evidence for brain degeneration among alcoholics and recovery with abstinence. Alcohol Research & Health.


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides a safe, noninvasive method to examine the brain’s macrostructure, microstructure, and some aspects of how the living brain functions. MRI is capable of detecting abnormalities that can occur with alcoholism as well as changes that can occur with sobriety and relapse. The brain pathology associated with chronic excessive alcohol consumption is well documented with imaging of the living body (i.e., in vivo imaging). Consistent findings include shrinkage of the frontal cortex,1 [1For a definition of this and other technical terms, see the Glossary, pp. 345–347.] underlying white matter, and cerebellum and expansion of the ventricles. Some of these changes are reversible with abstinence, but some appear to be enduring. Research showing correlations between brain structure and quantitative neuropsychological testing demonstrates the functional consequences of the pathology. In addition, functional imaging studies provide evidence that the brain compensates for cognitive deficits. The myriad concomitants of alcoholism, the antecedents, and the consumption patterns each may influence the observed brain changes associated with alcoholism, which tend to be more deleterious with increasing age. The multifaceted nature of alcoholism presents unique challenges and opportunities to understand the mechanisms underlying alcoholism-induced neuropathology and its recovery. Longitudinal MRI studies of animal models of alcoholism, however, can address questions about the development and course of alcohol dependence and the scope and limits of in vivo degeneration and recovery of brain structure and concomitant function that may not be readily addressed in clinical studies. 

Keywords: Alcoholism; brain; brain function; brain structure; neuropathology; cognitive impairment; brain imaging; neuroimaging; magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); diffusion tensor imaging (DTI); in vivo imaging studies; frontal cortex; white matter; human studies; animal models; longitudinal studies

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