Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

The idea that alcohol kills brain cells has long been promoted. The early temperance writers made this assertion and also insisted that the alcohol in their blood could cause “drunkards” to catch fire and burn alive. 1 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.

Scientific medical research has actually demonstrated 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. 2

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. 3

However, abstinence after chronic alcohol abuse enables brains to repair themselves, according to new research involving rats. 4

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. The study is the first to demonstrate that brain cell production can return after abstinence from alcohol abuse.

People who drink too much and are thinking about either reducing or eliminating their drinking should find these findings encouraging, although humans have not yet been tested directly for the positive brain effects.

References

  • 1. Hanson, David J. Alcohol Education: What we Must Do. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1996, p. 13.
  • 2. See, for example, Antilla, Tiia, et al. Alcohol drinking in middle age and subsequent risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in old age: a prospective population based study. British Medical Journal, 2004, 329, 538-539; Harrison, P.G. Moderate Drinking Helps Preserve Women's Brains. Reuters Health, June 15, 2001; McDougall, Graham. Older Women's Cognitive and Affective Response to Moderate Drinking. Presented at the meetings of the National Congress on the State of Science in Nursing Research. Washington, D.C., October 7-8,2004; University of Texas at Austin. Moderate drinking in older adult women has positive influence on memory. News release, October 3,2004; Matthews, Robert. Alcohol sharpens your brain, say researchers. The Telegraph (UK), August 1, 2004; Galanis, D. J., et al. A longitudinal study of drinking and cofgnitive performance in elderly Japanese American men: The Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. American Journal of Public Health, 2000, 90, 1254-1259; Elias, P.K., et al. Alcohol consumption and cognitive performance in the Framingham Heart Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 1999, 150(6), 580-589. Bates, M.E., and Tracy, J.I. Cognitive functioning in young "social drinkers": Is there impairment to detect? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1990, 99, 242-249
  • 3. O’Connor, Anahad. The claim: Alcohol kills brain cells. New York Times, November 23, 2994. (Reports that alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells.)
  • 4. Nixon, K. and Crews, F. The Journal of Neuroscience, Oct. 27, 2004; vol 24: pp 9714-9722.

Readings

  • Antilla, Tiia, et al. Alcohol drinking in middle age and subsequent risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in old age: a prospective population based study. British Medical Journal, 2004, 329, 538-539.
  • Bates, M.E., and Tracy, J.I. Cognitive functioning in young "social drinkers": Is there impairment to detect? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1990, 99, 242-249.
  • Elias, P.K., et al. Alcohol consumption and cognitive performance in the Framingham Heart Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 1999, 150(6), 580-589.
  • Ford, Gene. The Science of Health Drinking. San Francisco, CA: Wine Appreciation Guild, 2004.
  • Galanis, D. J., et al. A longitudinal study of drinking and cognitive performance in elderly Japanese American men: The Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. American Journal of Public Health, 2000, 90, 1254-1259.
  • Harrison, P.G. Moderate Drinking Helps Preserve Women's Brains. Reuters Health, June 15, 2001
  • McDougall, Graham. Older Women's Cognitive and Affective Response to Moderate Drinking. Presented at the meetings of the National Congress on the State of Science in Nursing Research. Washington, D.C., October 7-8,2004; University of Texas at Austin. Moderate drinking in older adult women has positive influence on memory. News release, October 3,2004.
  • Matthews, Robert. Alcohol sharpens your brain, say researchers. The Telegraph (UK), August 1, 2004.

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