Alcohol use is a growing global health concern and economic burden. Alcohol involvement (i.e., initiation, use, problematic use, alcohol use disorder) has been reliably associated with broad spectrum grey matter differences in cross-sectional studies. These findings have been largely interpreted as reflecting alcohol-induced atrophy. However, emerging data suggest that brain structure differences also represent pre-existing vulnerability factors for alcohol involvement. Here, we review evidence from human studies with designs (i.e., family-based, genomic, longitudinal) that allow them to assess the plausibility that these correlates reflect predispositional risk factors and/or causal consequences of alcohol involvement. These studies provide convergent evidence that grey matter correlates of alcohol involvement largely reflect predisposing risk factors, with some evidence for potential alcohol-induced atrophy. These conclusions highlight the importance of study designs that can provide causal clues to cross-sectional observations. An integrative model may best account for these data, in which predisposition to alcohol use affects brain development, effects which may then be compounded by the neurotoxic consequences of heavy alcohol use.
- brain structure