BACKGROUND: Studies have shown that alcoholics have smaller brain volumes than non-alcoholic cohorts, but an effect of family history (FH) of heavy drinking on brain volume has not been demonstrated. We examined the relationship between an FH of heavy drinking and both brain shrinkage as measured by the ratio of brain volumes to intracranial volume (ICV) as well as maximal brain growth as measured by ICV in early-onset and late-onset alcoholics.
METHODS: With T1-weighted resonance imaging, we measured ICV, brain volume, and white and gray matter volume in adult treatment-seeking late-onset and early-onset alcoholics with either a positive or a negative FH of heavy alcohol use, and in healthy control subjects. We also calculated brain shrinkage using a ratio of soft tissue volumes to ICV.
RESULTS: The FH positive alcoholic patients had significantly smaller ICVs than FH negative patients, suggesting smaller premorbid brain growth. Brain shrinkage did not correlate with FH. Late-onset alcoholics showed a greater difference in ICV between FH positive and FH negative patients than early-onset alcoholics. Late-onset FH positive patients also had significantly lower IQ scores than late-onset FH negative patients, and IQ scores were correlated with ICV.
CONCLUSIONS: These data provide evidence that parental alcohol use might increase risk for alcoholism in offspring in part by a genetic and/or environmental effect that might be related to reduced brain growth.