The findings could have meaning for the more than 17.5 million Americans -- about 8% of the population -- with alcohol addiction.
Many people with alcohol addiction have problems with learning, memory, and impulsivity. Researchers say this could stem from alcohol's effect on an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory.
People with alcohol addiction repeatedly drink alcohol although it causes significant problems in areas such as relationships, work, personal obligations, or legal matters like disorderly conduct or drunken driving.
Signs of alcohol addiction include feeling compelled to drink, drinking in secret, needing greater amounts of alcohol to have the desired effect, withdrawal symptoms without alcohol, and feeling that alcohol is starting to dominate your life.
Some people can drink moderately with no problem, while others may only need a small amount to slide toward alcohol addiction. No one knows why some people are more vulnerable than others to alcohol addiction.
The new study was conducted by Fulton Crews, PhD, director of UNC's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, and research associate Kim Nixon, PhD. Crews and Nixon studied 81 adult male rats, feeding them enough alcohol over four days to simulate alcohol addiction.
During this period, the rats' ability to produce new brain cells was inhibited. But when the researchers stopped supplying alcohol, the rats had a spurt in new brain cell production after just seven days.
"After [alcohol] abstinence for one week, we saw a huge burst in the number of new cells being born," says Nixon in a news release.
A few weeks later, the rats had "a pronounced increase" in new nerve cell formation in the brain's hippocampus.
The study is the first to show that brain cell production can bounce back, at least to some degree, from alcohol addiction, say the researchers. It also supports the theory that brain cells can be produced throughout life.