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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin Alcohol and other drugs knowledge centre Yarning Places

Complete recovery of brain function for chronic petrol users

Date posted: 25 November 2013

The final results of a ground breaking, long-term study prove that brain damage can be completely reversed when people stop sniffing petrol but the recovery can take years.

Petrol use remains a major source of illness, death and social dysfunction in many remote communities

Associate Professor, Sheree Cairney, and her team from the Menzies School of Health Research (Menzies) have been working with two remote Arnhem Land communities, Northern Territory, to stamp out the petrol sniffing that was devastating their communities.

The researchers assessed brain function and blood lead levels of the sniffers at the time they quit sniffing when they were significantly impaired. These assessments were again tested after two years abstinence, when some impairment remained, and finally after fifteen year of abstinence when no impairment remained.

'Our preliminary results, based on two years' abstinence, provided the first clinical proof in the world that the brain damage of ex-sniffers can repair if the abuse stops early enough,' says A/Prof Cairney.

Prior to Dr Cairney's pioneering research, the medical profession had assumed that brain damage from sniffing petrol and other inhalants was permanent. 'Our final results show that with further abstinence, repair can be even more complete,' says Dr Cairney.

While these findings will bring much hope to other petrol-blighted communities and health professionals, the outcomes were not so positive for the small number who had experienced heavy exposure to leaded petrol. 'Unfortunately damage inflicted by lead to the cerebellum part of the brain can be irreversible, a condition known as lead encephalopathy,' Dr Cairney explained.

Dr Cairney said that research had showed that young people were sniffing because they were bored. 'Petrol sniffing was eradicated in these communities by switching fuel supply and by introducing employment and skills training programs. The roll out of Opal fuel in remote regions must continue. Recovery for ex-sniffers may be quicker if they are supported by complementary programs encouraging better nutrition and healthier lifestyles,' she said.

Source: Menzies School of Health Research


Richmond Hodgson
National Communications and Media Manager
Menzies School of Health Research
Mobile: 0408 128 099


Last updated: 22 November 2013
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