Friday, April 13, 2012

Drinking Alcohol is Good for your Brain

"... one thing people who drink socially probably don't need to worry about is sacrificing brain cells in the process. The research indicates that adults who drink in moderation are not in danger of losing brain cells."(The New York Times)

"Even in alcoholics, alcohol use doesn't actually result in the death of brain cells."(Discovery Health)

One very popular myth concerning alcohol that was once spread about, particularly during Prohibition, is that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to spontaneous combustion due to alcohol being flammable and it coursing through your veins. This is ridiculous on many levels, but nevertheless, was a popular notion during Prohibition and for a while afterwards.

This combustion argument against drinking was dropped long ago but many anti-alcohol writers continue to promote the idea that even moderate drinking causes brain cells to die. This myth also has been widely popularized during Prohibition, but is pretty much alive among the general public.

Scientific medical research however has actually demonstrated an opposite - that the moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills and memory than is abstaining from alcohol. Moderate drinking doesn’t kill brain cells but helps the brain function better into old age. Studies around the world involving many thousands of people report this finding.

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Of course, years of alcohol abuse can cause serious neurological damage, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Harm can be done to message-carrying dendrites on neurons in the cerebellum, a part of the brain involved in learning and physical coordination. But even in such extreme cases, there’s a lack of evidence that alcohol kills brain cells.

However, abstinence after chronic alcohol abuse enables brains to repair themselves, according to new research involving rats. During simulated alcohol “binges,” rats’ ability to create new brain cells was reduced. But after the animals no longer consumed alcohol they had a “huge burst” in new brain cell development.

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But when you are drunk, your brain is truly affected. The study, done at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, explained the biology of how the brain deals with alcohol. In particular, the research looks at how the brain reacts when a person is so intoxicated that they cannot recall events during the period commonly referred to as “blackout.”

Large quantities of alcohol interfere with key receptors in the hippocampus, the main center for cognitive functioning in the brain. At the same time, alcohol releases a steroid that that inhibits the way by which the brain strengthens synapses — or the connections between brain cells.

Researchers now believe that large amounts of alcohol won’t kill brain cells, but rather it signals compounds that inhibit the brain’s ability to form memories. This “may explain why individuals who get highly intoxicated don’t remember what they did the night before,” senior investigator Charles F. Zorumski, MD, the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry said in a press release from Washington University.

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Another very recent study confirmed once again the fact that drinking alcohol may significantly enhance a person’s problem solving skills.

Scientists found that men who either drank two pints of beer or two glasses of wine before solving brain teasers not only got more questions right, they also were quicker in delivering correct answers, compared to men who answered the questions sober.

Scientists found that participants with a BAC of 0.07 or higher solved 40 percent more problems than their sober counterparts and took 12 seconds to complete the tasks compared to 15.5 seconds by teetotal participants.

While the latest findings go against the traditional beliefs that alcohol impairs analytical thinking and rational thoughts, lead author Professor Jennifer Wiley of the University of Illinois at Chicago discovered that alcohol may enhance creativity problem solving by reducing the mind’s working memory capacity, which is the ability to concentrate on something in particular.

“Working memory capacity is considered the ability to control one’s attention,” Wiley told the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS). “It’s the ability to remember one thing while you’re thinking about something else.”

While the latest study found that alcohol may enhance creative problem solving, previous research found that increased working memory capacity actually led to better analytical problem-solving performance.

Researcher also found that people who drank alcohol and had a blood alcohol level of 0.07 or higher were worse at completing problems that required attentional control but better at creative problem solving tests. 

Wiley said that the key finding was that being too focused can blind a person to novel possibilities and a broader, more flexible state of attention may be helpful for creative solutions to emerge.
“We have this assumption, that being able to focus on one part of a problem or having a lot of expertise is better for problem solving,” Wiley said. “But that’s not necessarily true. Innovation may happen when people are not so focused. Sometimes it’s good to be distracted.”

Wiley noted that the findings only apply to people who had only a few drinks and not when people drink to extremes.

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Furthermore, several researches have proved that moderate alcohol consumption helps protect people from cognitive impairment as they age. According to a study done at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, in Italy, 29% of people 65 years or older who almost never drank alcohol throughout their life had mental impairment issues. On the flip-side of that, only about 19% of people 65 years or older who drank moderate amounts of alcohol regularly had any mental impairment. It was further discovered that, among the various groups where other problems, such as health problems or the like, might impair them mentally, the same trend appeared. In every group, those who drank moderately on a regular basis throughout their lives always had a diminished chance of becoming mentally impaired in their old age compared to those who didn’t drink at all or almost never drank.

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