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Does Alcohol Really Kill Brain Cells?

Does alcohol kill brain cells

One of the most persistent myths about alcohol consumption is that drinking alcohol actively kills brain cells. The origins of this myth are unknown, but science has completely debunked the notion that even the heaviest of drinking causes the death of neurons.... Usually.

Science has shown that while light drinking has neurological benefits, heavy drinking can impair mental function, just not permanently. (In most cases, as we will see later.)

How Heavy Drinking Affects the Brain

Out of the countless studies performed on alcohol’s effect on the brain, two of them debunked this myth most thoroughly. The first was performed by Grethe Jensen and Co. in 1993 and consisted of researchers painstakingly counting the amount of brain cells in both hardcore alcoholics and heavy drinkers. They found that there was no significant difference in the amount of brain cells between alcoholics and non-drinkers. [1]

So what affect does heavy drinking have on the mind? The study found that while it didn’t kill brain cells, it does damage the connective tissue, or dendrites, that allow signals to be carried in between brain cells. [2] This damage does impair cognitive function, but it is mostly reversible. If one abstains from alcohol for long enough, almost all of the damage will heal. Certain supplements, Dihydromyricetin included, have been shown to prevent some of the damage done to dendrites by alcohol.

Alcohol Consumption and Neurogenesis

Scientists once believed that once an individual’s brain ceased developing that they would be unable to produce more brain cells. Recent studies have proven that this is incorrect, and that people are constantly growing new brain cells in a process dubbed neurogenesis.

Unfortunately for heavy drinkers, the consumption of over 4 drinks a day of alcohol has been shown to inhibit the growth of new brain cells by nearly 40%. [5] It is questionable, however, what the consequences of this inhibition of neurogenesis are, as the subjects in the study showed no disruption of basic sensory, motor, or learning processes. [5]

The impact of alcohol on neurogenesis is almost certainly more damaging to the developing brain, and it is believed to be a contributing factor in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. [4]

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

While the myth that alcohol kills brain cells isn’t true in almost every circumstance, hardcore alcoholics can develop Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This condition is caused by a deficiency in Thiamine (Vitamin B1). This deficiency is very common in heavy drinkers, and is believed to affect up to 80% of alcoholics.[3]

Though rare even in people with a low levels of Thiamine, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can have extreme neurological consequences. It’s symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, difficulties encoding memories, inability to concentrate, hallucinations, and mental degeneration. [4] It is not yet known why only a small subset of people with a thiamine deficiency end up developing this condition, but scientists think genetics may make some people more susceptible. [4] Luckily no matter how predisposed they are to it, even the heaviest drinker can avoid this condition by simply taking a thiamine supplement.

Light Drinking May Be Benefcial

In contrast to the (not permanent) harm that heavy alcohol consumption does to the brain, one study found that people who consume between one and thirty alcoholic drinks a week score significantly higher on tests of cognitive function than those who abstain completely. [6]

The effect was found to be more significant in women than men, but held up even when a number of confounding variables such as smoking status and physical and mental health. This re-enforces the now widely held belief that light drinking has a number of beneficial health effects.

Cited Studies

  1. Braun (1996) Buzz:The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine. Oxford University Press p.5
  2. Chronic Alcohol Drinking Alters Neuronal Dendritic Spines in the Brain Reward Center Nucleus Accumbens
  3. Alcohol's Damaging Effects on the Brain
  4. Thomson, A. D., & Marshall, E. J. (2006). The natural history and pathophysiology of Wernicke's encephalopathy and Korsakoff's psychosis. Alcohol & Alcoholism, 41(2), 151-158. doi: 10.1093/alcalc/agh249
  5. Moderate drinking? Alcohol consumption significantly decreases neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus.

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