Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System found that, after abstaining from drinking, female brains' white matter levels increase more quickly than male brains do. However, women's recovery slowed down as men's recovery outperformed theirs.

Previous research has linked alcoholism to white matter reduction. In brains, white matter produces the connections between neurons, which allow different sections of the brain to communicate.

The latest study was conducted by Susan Mosher Ruiz and her colleagues in Boston. They looked at brain scans of 42 people who had been heavy drinkers for five or more years, but had since been abstinent. Ruiz and her fellow investigators compared these scans with a control group of 42 people who had never been considered alcoholics.

All brain scans had been obtained with MRIs. They looked at white matter in the lobar and gyral subsections of the brain, as well as cerebellar white matter and ventricular volumes. (The four lobes are associated with the brain's interpretation of the body's senses and conscious thought; the angular gyrus and supramarginal gyrus is associated with language and cognition; the cerebellum is associated with the coordination of movement, balance, and posture; and the size of the brain's venticles have been linked to cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease.)

In people who had abstained from alcohol for less than a year, women's brains showed that they had recovered some white matter volume and ventricular volume had decreased, while men's brains showed no recovery yet. For people who had abstained for longer than a year, white matter increased at a rate of 1 percent each year, and men saw their brain recovery outpace that of their female counterparts.

In addition, the effects of alcoholism seemed hit women more strongly than it did men. For each additional drink, women lost an additional 1.5 to 2 percent white matter than men did. The size of the ventricles in women's brains increased 8 to 10 percent.

The team's findings have been published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.