Comment »Posted on Wednesday 15 October 2008 at 10:45 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A study in the latest issue of the Archives of Neurology suggest that – shock horror – drinking alcohol may have detrimental effects on your health.

The research looked at a link between alcohol consumption and brain volume, i.e. does how much you drink effect the size of your grey matter? A group of scientists from Massachusetts and California investigated data recorded from 1,839 participants who had been part of a larger study.

Scientists already know that the size of your brain will decrease naturally as you grow older; it’s estimated that this shrinkage occurs at the rate of 1.9% per decade. Excessive drinking has also been shown to effect cognitive ability, and can lead to Korsakoff syndrome which causes amnesia amongst other effects on the brain. Moderate consumption of alcohol however has been linked to improved mental capacity and a lower risk of Alzheimer disease. This new research hoped to find a link between the two.

Brain volume was measured for each person in the study, and then adjusted to account for natural differences in body size. Participants were also quizzed on their level of alcohol intake, and assigned to one of five groups: abstainers, former drinkers, low (1-7 drinks per week), moderate (8-14 drinks per week), and high (more than 14 drinks per week).

Those who drank more had a smaller relative brain volume. Copyright AMA Publications

“Most participants reported low alcohol consumption, and men were more likely than women to be moderate or heavy drinkers,” say the authors. Women also showed a stronger link between alcohol consumption and brain size, as heavier drinkers had larger reductions than their male counterparts.

One potential pitfall that the researchers suggest is the self-reporting of a participants alcohol consumption. I know when I’m asked how much I drink on a medical form, I tend to knock a few pints off the total! This under-reporting however would actually mean the true association between drinking and brain size is stronger than the link discovered in the study.

Summing up, the authors call for more research. The data used was not originally meant for this purpose so they can’t conclusively say that “DRINKING WILL SHRINK YOUR BRAIN!!!” as the Daily Mail might put it, but they hope to send a message to the public that drinking excessively is bad for your health.

Carol Ann Paul; Rhoda Au; Lisa Fredman; Joseph M. Massaro; Sudha Seshadri; Charles DeCarli; Philip A. Wolf (2008). Association of Alcohol Consumption With Brain Volume in the Framingham Study Archives of Neurology, 65 (10), 1363-1367

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