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Language Skills Spared From Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

In previous studies, it has been found that alcoholism can cause substantial damage to the brain’s frontal lobes and the cerebellum. But while these regions are directly involved in language processing, this characteristic appears to be unaffected by alcohol in chronic drinkers. A study conducted by a French research team suggests “that alcoholics develop compensatory mechanisms to maintain their language skills despite alcohol’s damages.” These mechanisms, however, can restrict other processes being controlled by the damaged brain regions.

“We believe there are certain neural substrates associated with the preserved mechanisms of language processing in alcoholics,” says corresponding author Jean Luc Martinot, research director and psychiatrist from the INSERM/CEA/Universite Paris Sud and Universite Paris Descartes. Martinot and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to find out if alcohol dependents develop another pattern of neural activity that could explain why language processing is unscathed by the chronic alcoholism.

For the said study, the researchers had 12 alcoholic males and 12 non-alcoholic males go through an auditory language task while they received an fMRI scan. Greater fMRI responses were detected in the right superior frontal gyrus and the left middle frontal gryus as well as the cerebellar vermis in the alcoholic group as compared to the non-alcohol group.

According to Edith Sullivan of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, the study proves that alcoholics are still capable of performing certain tasks that appear to be impaired as per formal testing. However, to do so, they have to enlist the assistance of more brain regions as compared to non-alcoholics. “This observation confirms several previous functional imaging studies and provides evidence that normal performance in a compromised neural system may require invocation f brain systems that would normally be used to perform another task simultaneously,” she adds.

Martinot noted that the greater fMRI response that was seen in the said regions might be an indication of the need for more oxygen, and hence, more energy, for them to be able to perform at par with the control group.

“In other words,” explains Sullivan, “ an ostensibly normal performance by a recovering alcoholic may be accomplished at the cost of reducing processing capacity to engage in or to be ready to engage in another task, for example, driving and being prepared to shift from one focus to another when unexpected events occur.”

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