Adverse Brain Outcomes in Moderate Alcohol Consumption
Posted On June 10, 2017
New Study Indicates Moderate Drinking Can Cause Damage to Brain
Conclusion: Alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is associated with adverse brain outcomes including hippocampal atrophy. These results support the recent reduction in alcohol guidance in the UK – and question the current limits recommended in the US. Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: longitudinal cohort study, British Medical Journal, 11 May 2017
The new study published this week in the British Medical Journal, looked at people’s weekly alcohol intake from the Whitehall II study. This carefully documented study tracked disease and social behaviors in a group of British civil servants for 30 years. University of Oxford and University College London scientists studied participant brain function with regular brain function tests and an MRI.
Some studies have shown that the brains of heavier drinkers change over time with negative results. This new research suggests that the brains of even moderate drinkers change.
Moderate drinkers had a higher risk of hippocampal atrophy than those who did not report any drinking. The moderate drinking group was consuming about 14 to 21 units of alcohol per week – about one medium glass of wine each night, plus a little extra on the weekends.
There was no protective effect (that is, reduced odds of atrophy) with light drinking (1-<7 units a week) over abstinence.
The study’s heaviest drinkers had a little more than two medium glasses of wine or two beers each night.
This is not the first research to question whether drinking even moderate amounts had an impact, though results have been mixed. A 2008 study found that the more people drank, the smaller their total brain volume, meaning their brains aged faster.
Our Assessment of the Study
Moderate drinkers can experience loss of hippocampal brain function? Shocking – and interesting.
Hippocampal injury or loss of function is serious; the hippocampus processes emotions and memory. This study presents the possibility that even social or ‘moderate’ alcohol consumption can cause hippocampal atrophy in at least some individuals.
Studies have already shown that social ‘binge drinking‘ causes damage to the brain.
Hippocampal Atrophy Symptoms
Memory loss including short term and long term memory loss; based on the severity
Difficulty recalling recent events
Difficulty with spatial navigation
Loss of direction and tendency to get lost in otherwise familiar environment
Moderate Drinker or ‘Functional’ Alcoholic?
As researchers have noted, when participants are asked to self-report drinking habits – most will under-report alcohol consumption if their drinking is above ‘socially accepted’ limits.
When work pressures and emotional and family crisis escalate – it is incredibly easy to slip into a heavy drinking pattern. For some, this is a temporary condition. For others, heavy drinking becomes a permanent way of life.
It is estimated that 20% of alcoholics are ‘functional alcoholics‘. The emotional impact on significant others and family can be devastating.
The ‘functional alcoholic subtype‘ are least like the typical alcoholic. They are often well-educated, middle-aged and with stable jobs and families. This functional category highlighted the hidden nature of problem drinking for many people.
High-functioning alcoholics are able to hold down a job (often well-paid) and appear in control of their lives. These individuals are often extremely experienced at hiding their drinking habits. And due to the seemingly minimal consequences [to them] of their drinking – are unlikely to see it as a problem.
A serious obstacle in identifying and getting help for high-functioning alcoholics is that high-functioning alcoholics often do not meet the criteria for alcohol abuse, as described in the psychiatric diagnostic manual. They have good jobs, perform the expected tasks of daily life and avoid legal problems.
The hippocampus is a part of the brain that helps in memory and spatial navigation.
The hippocampus helps in formation of long term memory.
Any damage in the hippocampus can cause memory loss and disorientation.
Damage in the hippocampus can lead to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, amnesia, dementia.
Hippocampal atrophy is a condition that causes cognitive and memory dysfunction due to degeneration of the hippocampus.
Anti-depressant drugs can help in management of the memory and emotional issues; complete cure of hippocampal atrophy is not possible currently.
Can Alcohol Abstinence Reverse Brain Damage?
Several studies have shown that years of abstaining from booze can allow brain regions to return to their original volume and can repair neural connections across different regions. Much of this restoration occurs in the system most adversely affected by chronic alcoholism—the frontocerebellar circuitry, which regulates decision making, reasoning and problem solving.
Other reports, however, have found sustained injury in certain areas. Some former alcohol abusers show permanent damage to the hippocampus, a brain region that regulates long-term memory and spatial navigation; and only partial resolution of lesions on the white matter.
Although the effects of abstinence on the alcohol-abused brain vary, it appears that we display at least some ability to recover from the effects of excessive drinking.
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