People who smoke after they sober up may have a harder time recovering from alcoholism than those who don’t smoke.

A new study suggests that smoking may interfere with the brain’s ability to recover from the effects of chronic alcohol abuse.

Researchers found that after one month of sobriety, recovering alcoholics who smoked showed much less improvement in brain function and brain health than those who did not smoke.

"This study suggests that for better brain recovery, it may be beneficial for alcoholics in early abstinence to stop smoking as well," says researcher Dieter Meyerhoff, professor of radiology at the University of California, San Francisco, in a news release.

The study appears in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Faster Brain Recovery

Researchers compared the brains of 25 recovering alcoholics -- 14 smokers and 11 nonsmokers. The researchers used a form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) -- called spectroscopic imaging -- to measure two markers of brain cell function and health.

The scans showed that after one month of abstinence from alcohol, significant increases were found in both markers of brain function and health.

However, researchers did not find the same pattern or magnitude of recovery in recovering alcoholics who smoked. In fact, they found a decrease in some of these indicators of brain cell health and function in areas of the brain that deal with sensory processing and manipulating objects.

Tests of the participants’ brain function -- including learning and memory, attention and concentration, and overall processing speed -- also showed that nonsmokers’ increases in these markers were associated with improvements in function.

Researchers say these results are preliminary and further study is needed to confirm these results. But if they are, smoking cessation may need to be added to the treatment plan for recovering alcoholics.

"This may be a lot to ask from an alcoholic individual going through drastic brain chemical imbalances in early recovery," says Meyerhoff. "But it may lead to faster brain recovery."

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Durrazo, T. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, March 2006; vol 30: pp 539-551. News release, University of California, San Francisco.