Oct 25, 2012 by MARCO TORRES
Even Moderate Consumption of Wine or Alcohol May Decrease New Brain Cells
Drinking a couple of glasses of wine each day has generally been considered a good way to promote cardiovascular and brain health. But a new Rutgers University study indicates that its still a risky behavior that can decrease the making of adult brain cells by as much as 40 percent.
U.S. health officials define moderate drinking as up to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women (pregnant women should abstain completely.) A standard drink can come in the form of a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce cocktail of 80-proof liquor.
Those who drink alcoholic beverages may want to rethink their drinking in light of the many warnings about smaller amounts of alcohol use. The alcohol industry and the media have portrayed one glass, even two glasses, of wine or beer as not only safe, but possibly healthy. They tell the public that there is only danger when the use of alcohol is excessive or abusive.
In a study posted online and scheduled to be published in the journal Neuroscience on November 8, lead author Megan Anderson, a graduate student working with Tracey J. Shors, Professor II in Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology, reported that even moderate drinking -- drinking less during the week and more on the weekends -- significantly reduces the structural integrity of the adult brain.
"In the short term there may not be any noticeable motor skills or overall functioning problems, but in the long term this type of behavior could have an adverse effect on learning and memory," said Anderson.
Alcohol itself is a Class A human carcinogen and increases the risk of breast, colon, liver, and oral cancers. It is a drug that suppresses the central nervous system, like barbiturates, sedatives, and anesthetics. Alcohol is not a stimulant, even though the person who drinks seems stimulated because the alcohol is affecting portions of the brain that control judgment. It is a depression of self-control, not a stimulant.
Most of the studies on red wine clearly show that it is not the alcohol itself that gives wine its protective effects. What are beneficial are the abundant quantities of compounds that are found even in red wine that has been dealcoholized. Specificially resveratrol is a phenolic compound that contributes to the antioxidant potential of red wine.
Shors and Anderson worked with postdoctoral fellow Miriam Nokia from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland to model moderate to heavy drinking in humans using rodents that reached a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent -- the legal driving limit in the United States and many other countries -- and found that brain cell production was affected negatively.
The researchers discovered that at this level of intoxication in rats -- comparable to about 3-4 drinks for women and five drinks for men -- the number of nerve cells in the hippocampus of the brain were reduced by nearly 40 percent compared to those in the abstinent group of rodents. The hippocampus is a part of the brain where the new neurons are made and is also known to be necessary for some types of new learning.
This level of alcohol intake was not enough to impair the motor skills of either male or female rats or prevent them from associative learning in the short-term. Still, Anderson said, this substantial decrease in brain cell numbers over time could have profound effects on the structural plasticity of the adult brain because these new cells communicate with other neurons to regulate brain health.
"If this area of your brain was affected every day over many months and years, eventually you might not be able to learn how to get somewhere new or to learn something new about your life," said Anderson, a graduate fellow in the Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology. "It's something that you might not even be aware is occurring."
"Alcohol is underestimated as a cause of cancer in many parts of the world," said Dr Paolo Boffetta of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France.
"A sizeable proportion of cancer today is due to alcohol intake and this is increasing in many regions, particularly in east Asia and eastern Europe," he added in an interview.
Boffetta and Mia Hashibe, who reviewed research into the link between alcohol and cancer, found the more alcohol consumed, the higher the risk of developing cancer.
"This research indicates that social or daily drinking may be more harmful to brain health than what is now believed by the general public," said Anderson.
Many researchers claim that any heart gains from drinking alcohol in moderation are likely outweighed by the harm.
The way that many studies on alcohol are carried out do not allow the researchers to be able to say with certainty that the findings could not be due to other factors rather than solely the amount of alcohol consumed.
Belinda Linden, head of medical information at the British Heart Foundation said: "This suggests that light to moderate alcohol consumption may only give a small amount of protection against coronary heart disease."
According to one study, black men who consumed between 140 and 210 grams of ethanol each week are more than twice as likely as their non-drinking peers to have heart disease. In contrast, white men who drank similar amounts were nearly half as likely to experience heart disease as white men who did not drink.
"We have to put all these discrepancies into perspective," said Keith Johnson from the UK Drug and Alcohol Foundation. "There is no such thing as poison in moderation and people have to realize that although alcohol has been around for thousands of years, it doesn't mean that long-term consumption from even light drinking is healthy," he stated.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.