30-Year Study: Moderate Alcohol Consumption Linked to Pathological Changes in Brain

A new study led by University of Oxford scientists has actually found that alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is related to increased threat of negative brain results including hippocampal atrophy– a kind of brain damage that impacts memory and spatial navigation. The research study was released online in the journal BMJ on June 6, 2017.

Even moderate drinking is connected to pathological modifications in the brain. 

“Alcohol use is widespread and increasing across the developed world. It has historically been viewed as harmless in moderation, defined variably from 9-18 units (72-144 g) a week,” said lead author Dr. Anya Topiwala, a clinical lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Oxford, and co-authors.

The study shows that while persistent dependent drinking is connected with Korsakoff syndrome and alcoholic dementia, the long term results of non-dependent alcohol usage on the brain are improperly understood.

“Light-to-moderate drinking has been associated with a lower risk of dementia and a reduced incidence of myocardial infarction and stroke. Brain imaging studies, however, have thus far failed to provide a convincing neural correlate that could underpin any protective effect.”

So, Dr. Topiwala and colleagues set out to investigate whether moderate alcohol consumption has a beneficial or damaging association– or no association at all– with brain structure and function.

The scientists used data on weekly alcohol  intake and cognitive performance measured repeatedly over 30 years for 550 healthy men and women (mean age 43 at study baseline) who were taking part in the Whitehall II cohort study.

Brain function tests were performed at regular intervals and at the end of the research study, individuals went through an MRI brain scan.

Several aspects that could have affected the results (known as confounding) were taken into consideration, such as age, sex, education, social class, physical and social activity, smoking, stroke risk and medical history.

After adjusting for these confounders, the authors discovered that greater alcohol consumption over the Thirty Years research study duration was related to increased threat of hippocampal atrophy.

While those taking in over 30 units a week were at the greatest danger compared with teetotalists, even those drinking reasonably (14-21 units per week) were 3 times more likely to have hippocampal atrophy compared with abstainers.

There was no protective effect of light drinking (up to 7 units each week) over abstinence.

Higher consumption was also connected with poorer white matter integrity and faster decline in language fluency. However no association was discovered with semantic fluency or word recall.

The research study was observational, which does not allow for firm conclusions. Nevertheless, key information was obtained throughout the 30-year study.

“The findings support the recent reduction in UK safe limits and call into question the current US guidelines, which suggest that up to 24.5 units a week is safe for men, as we found increased odds of hippocampal atrophy at just 14-21 units a week, and we found no support for a protective effect of light consumption on brain structure,” they said.

“Alcohol might represent a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, and primary prevention interventions targeted to later life could be too late.”

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