Associations of White Matter Microstructure with Clinical and Demographic Characteristics in Heavy Drinkers

Damage to the brain’s white matter is a signature injury of alcohol use disorders (AUDs), yet understanding of risks associated with clinical and demographic characteristics is incomplete. This study investigated alcohol problem severity, recent drinking behavior, and demographic factors in relation to white matter microstructure in heavy drinkers. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), were collected from 324 participants (mean age = 30.9 ± 9.1 years; 30% female) who reported five or more heavy drinking episodes in the past 30 days. Drinking history and alcohol problem severity were assessed. A common white matter factor was created from fractional anisotropy (FA) values of five white matter tracts: body of corpus callosum, fornix, external capsule, superior longitudinal fasciculus, and cingulate gyrus. Previous research has implicated these tracts in heavy drinking. Structural equation modeling (SEM) analyses tested the hypothesis that, after controlling for duration of alcohol exposure, clinical and behavioral measures of alcohol use severity would be associated with lower white matter factor scores. Potential interactions with smoking status, gender, age, treatment-seeking status, and depression or anxiety symptoms also were tested. Controlling for number of years drinking, greater alcohol problem severity and recent drinking frequency were significantly associated with lower white matter factor scores. The effect of drinking frequency differed significantly for men and women, such that higher drinking frequency was linked to lower white matter factor scores in women but not in men. In conclusion, alcohol problem severity was a significant predictor of lower white matter FA in heavy drinkers, after controlling for duration of alcohol exposure. In addition, more frequent drinking contributed to lower FA in women but not men, suggesting gender-specific vulnerability to alcohol neurotoxicity.