Cells Killed During
Binge Drinking Episodes
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A few days of binge drinking can
lead to the almost immediate death of brain cells, new research
conducted in laboratory animals confirms.
"Very high alcohol consumption, even for a short period of time,
damages the brain," study lead author Dr. Fulton T. Crews, professor
of pharmacology and director of the center for alcohol studies at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Reuters Health.
Studies of alcoholics have found that heavy consumption of alcohol
can lead to neurodegeneration, death of brain cells and reduced
brain tissue mass, and subsequent damaging effects such as a lack
of impulse control and difficulty in setting goals.
However, it has not been clear why the association between total
alcohol consumed over a lifetime and brain damage was not stronger.
Crews and colleagues hypothesized that it is short-term binges,
where a person consumes 10 drinks in a day, rather than consistent
heavy drinking, that may lead to brain damage.
"I believe it's not the total amount (consumed), it's related
to the pattern of consumption," Crews said. "Binge drinking, where
you reach high blood-alcohol levels, is when the damage occurs."
The researchers studied 200 lab rats, administering high amounts
of alcohol daily for four days to the animals and giving a control
group of animals an alcohol-free equivalent diet. The researchers
analyzed the animals' brains after two days, four days and then
three days after withdrawal, using a variety of microscopic methods.
The results were published in the April issue of the journal
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
The researchers reported that the animals forced onto an alcoholic
binge experienced significant death of brain cells within two
days, beginning with brain cells that control the sense of smell
and going on to parts of the brain's cortex after four days. The
type of cell death was determined to release inflammatory agents
into the brain.
Crews said that previous researchers suggested that alcohol-induced
brain damage occurs after alcohol has been consumed, during the
period of recovery or withdrawal, when seizures may occur. However,
Crews said he now suspects that much of the damage actually occurs
during the intoxication period itself.
"We're seeing peak damage during intoxication," Crews said.
"In only a few days, we can mimic what's seen in humans after
Crews said people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol most
likely avoid this phenomenon. "If someone is a two-drinks-a-day
drinker, I would not expect them to have any brain damage," he
noted. However, "people promoting an individual who just turned
21 to have 21 drinks (should realize) that this might have permanent
"It might not just be a one-day celebration," he warned. "Once
you've lost these brain cells, they're probably gone forever--how
would you ever know?"
SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research 2002;26:547-557.
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