Background: Neuroimaging studies reveal structural and functional including neurochemical brain abnormalities in individuals with substance use disorders compared to healthy controls. However, whether and to what extent such dysfunction is reversible with abstinence remains unclear, and a review of studies with longitudinal within-subject designs is lacking. We performed a systematic review of longitudinal neuroimaging studies to explore putative brain changes associated with abstinence in treatment-seeking individuals with substance use disorders. Methods: Following PRISMA guidelines, we examined articles published up to May 2021 that employed a neuroimaging technique and assessed neurobiological recovery in treatment-seeking participants at a minimum of two time-points separated by a period of abstinence (longer than 24 h apart) or significant reduction in drug use. Results: Forty-five studies met inclusion criteria. Encouragingly, in this limited but growing literature, the majority of studies demonstrated at least partial neurobiological recovery with abstinence. Structural recovery appeared to occur predominantly in frontal cortical regions, the insula, hippocampus, and cerebellum. Functional and neurochemical recovery was similarly observed in prefrontal cortical regions but also in subcortical structures. The onset of structural recovery appears to precede neurochemical recovery, which begins soon after cessation (particularly for alcohol); functional recovery may require longer periods of abstinence. Conclusions: The literature is still growing and more studies are warranted to better understand abstinence-mediated neural recovery in individuals with substance use disorders. Elucidating the temporal dynamics between neuronal recovery and abstinence will enable evidence-based planning for more effective and targeted treatment of substance use disorders, potentially pre-empting relapse.
- Substance use disorders