We’ve all heard the claims that alcohol is good for your health. The media is quick to cite studies saying that a glass of wine a day reduces the risk of heart attack and that drinking two glasses of wine or beer a day has been linked to a longer life. Sounds good, but what does alcohol do to the brain?
When it comes to that 3-pound supercomputer in your head, the news isn’t so rosy. Brain SPECT imaging studies at Amen Clinics, which has built the world’s largest database of functional brain scans related to behavior, as well as other research show that alcohol can damage the brain in ways that might make you think twice the next time you’re ordering at the bar.
1. Shrinks brain volume
People who drink just 1-7 drinks per week have smaller brains than nondrinkers, according to a 2008 study at Johns Hopkins that appeared in Archives of Neurology. This same research found that people who have 2 or more drinks per day have even more brain shrinkage.
Changes in the brain can occur early. A 2020 study in Scientific Reports found that moderate drinking was associated with lower total brain volume in early middle age (ages 39-45) in both males and females.
Research on adolescents and alcohol consumption in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience showed that those who became heavy drinkers between the ages of 12-17 compared to those who did not drink alcohol started out with less brain volume and lost even more brain volume over time. When it comes to the brain, size matters!
2. Lowers blood flow to the brain
The brain scans of heavy drinkers show reduced overall blood flow to the brain. The brain uses 20% of the blood flow in your body and it is critical for healthy brain function.
When levels are low it can lead to a laundry list of problems—brain fog, poor decision-making, trouble concentrating, impulsivity, and more. It’s especially important to know that low blood flow on brain scans is the #1 predictor of future memory problems and Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Causes atrophy of the hippocampus
Drinking 1-2 glasses of wine a day, which is considered “moderate” drinking, leads to atrophy in the hippocampus, according to a 30-year study of 550 women and men that was published in 2017 in BMJ.
The hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory. In this study, people who had 4 or more drinks per day were 6 times more likely to have atrophy in this critically important region of the brain compared with nondrinkers, and moderate drinkers had 3 times the risk.
The researchers noted that they found no protective effects from light drinking. And higher alcohol use was also linked to changes in the microstructure of the corpus callosum, a thick bundle of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain and that is involved in allowing both sides of the brain to communicate effectively.
4. Reduces the number of new brain cells
Excessive alcohol consumption lowers the generation of new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, according to animal research presented at Neuroscience in 2009. In the study, monkeys that consumed alcohol experienced a 58% decline in the number of new brain cells formed and a 63% reduction in the survival rate of new brain cells.
5. Increases the risk of dementia
Compared with non-drinkers and light drinkers, moderate to heavy drinkers have a 57% higher risk of dementia, according to research in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A. Drinking can literally make you lose your mind.
ALCOHOL ABUSE AND THE BRAIN
In people who abuse alcohol, the impacts on the brain can be even greater. A wealth of evidence, including findings in a 2016 review in Frontiers in Psychiatry, suggests that certain brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making, impulse control, planning, and follow-through) and the hippocampus (involved in memory, mood, and learning), experience the most damage from long-term abuse of alcohol.
BRAIN REHAB PROGRAM
Although these findings paint a grim picture of alcohol’s impact on the brain, the effects don’t have to be permanent. You are not stuck with the brain you have. Brain imaging studies at Amen Clinics show that the brains of heavy drinkers and alcohol abusers have the potential for recovery.
Before-and-after SPECT scans in patients who follow a brain rehab program show remarkable improvements in blood flow and activity in the brain. Additional scientific evidence has found that the cognitive deficits related to damage to the prefrontal cortex recover more rapidly than those associated with the hippocampus.
To rehab your brain, follow these tips:
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