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Mental Health, Dementia, Alzheimer’s & Other Neurological Conditions


Alcohol has a myriad of effects on the brain. David DiSalvo at Forbes.com (“What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain,” October 16, 2012), clearly summarized the effects:

1. Alcohol alters the levels of neurotransmitters both excitatory and inhibitory. It suppresses the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate and increases the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA resulting in a net depressant effect.
2. Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center (nucleus accumbens) which makes you feel better. This effect is more significant for men than women and may account for more alcoholism in men.
3. Alcohol affects the cerebellum which is the center of movement and balance leading to clumsiness.
4. Alcohol depresses the nerve centers in the hypothalamus that control sexual arousal and performance. The sexual urge may increase, but sexual performance decreases.
5. Alcohol acts on the medulla to induce sleepiness.
6. Alcohol acts on the cerebral cortex leading to less inhibition, and delays thought processes so one cannot think clearly.

Alcohol Use Patterns and Trajectories of Health-related Quality of Life in Middle-aged and Older Adults: A 14-Year Population-based Study. J Studies Alc & Drugs 73 (4) July 2012 This study of 5,404 communitydwelling Canadians ages 50 and older at baseline showed a positive relationship between moderate alcohol intake and quality of life in middle-aged adults. Persistent moderate drinkers had higher initial levels of healthrelated quality of life than persistent nonusers, persistent former users, decreasing users, U-shaped users, and inverted U-shaped users. Those who had decreasing consumption over time had a greater decline in their level of health-related quality of life than persistent moderate users.

A Longitudinal Assessment of Alcohol Intake and Incident Depression: the SUN Project BMC Public Health 12 November 12, 2012 A prospective study in Spain of 13,000 adults was done to evaluate the influence of alcohol intake on incident depression. Women with moderate alcohol intake (1-2 glasses of an alcoholic drink per day) had a 38 percent lower risk of depression. A U-shaped relationship between total alcohol intake and depression risk was found among women. No association was apparent for higher intakes of alcohol or for any specific type of alcoholic beverage.

Alcohol Consumption Induces Endogenous Opioid Release in the Human Orbitofrontal Cortex and Nucleus Accumbens Science Translational Med 4 (116) January 11, 2012 Researchers at the University of California San Francisco were able to prove that drinking alcohol increases the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins produce opiate-like effects of pleasure and reward. Using imaging technology to study the effects of alcohol on brains of twenty-five people, they confirmed previous animal studies that show alcohol causes the release of endorphins in areas of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. This is the first demonstration of this response in humans to alcohol consumption. The discovery of the precise locations in the brain where endorphins are released may lead to development of drugs for treating alcohol abuse.

Moderate Drinking? Alcohol Consumption Significantly Decreases Neurogenesis in the Adult Hippocampus J of Neuroscience 224 (8) November 2012 The daily drinking of moderate-high alcohol alters production of new neurons in the adult hippocampus. Using rats, a moderate to heavy drinking model that reached a BAC of 0.08 percent caused brain cell production to decrease by 40 percent compared to the abstinent group of rodents. This was comparable to 3-4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men. The hippocampus is the area of the brain where new neurons are made and is necessary for some types of learning. The changes did not disrupt basic sensory, motor or learning processes, but may lead to impaired memory.

Unlocking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Problem Solving J of Consciousness and Cognition A University of Illinois study found that test subjects who consumed two drinks were better at solving wordassociation brainteasers than sober test subjects. The drinking group had the equivalent of two pints of beer before doing the tests (BAC below the legal limit). The drinking group solved nearly 40 percent more problems than the others and in less time and were more likely to rate their solutions as insightful. The author of the study believes this effect is from a reduction in the brain’s working memory capacity allowing drinking participants to consider a wide range of possible solutions rather than honing in on specific details of the problem. This is the first demonstration of the effect of alcohol on creative problem solving.

Alcohol and Cognition in the Elderly: A Review Psychiatry Investig 9 (1) 2012 This article reviews the potential mechanisms by which alcohol may affect cognitive function and the risk of dementia. Heavy drinking is associated with an increased risk of neurological disease and dysfunction, while regular light-to-moderate drinking seems to be related to a reduced risk of neurological dysfunction, including a lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. The specific mechanisms for the effect are unknown. It is not advisable to suggest that the elderly start moderate drinking to reduce the risk of dementia, but the elderly who are moderate drinkers would not benefit from stopping alcohol consumption. The authors emphasize the need for more well designed studies to identify the alcohol drinking pattern that will optimally protect the elderly against cognitive decline and dementia.

Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2012 Researcher Tina Hoang of the Veterans Health Research Institute in San Francisco challenged the accepted belief that alcohol is good for aging brains. Her study tracked the health of 1,300 women in their mid-60s for over 20 years. The risk of cognitive impairment including dementia was higher among those who reported drinking more alcohol. Women who switched from abstinence to drinking over the course of the study also increased their risk. Moderate drinkers were more likely to show problems with memory and brain functioning, both possible early signs of dementia. Hoang believes that brains might become more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol as we age.

Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2012 5,075 men and women were studied, and those who had at least one episode of binge drinking per month were more likely to show dementia problems. Those who reported binge drinking at least twice a month were more than twice as likely to have the greatest decline in both cognitive function and memory. These differences held up even when other factors related to cognitive decline are taken into account. Outcomes were similar in men and women. It is theorized that alcohol causes blood pressure and cholesterol to rise which can then damage blood vessels supplying the brain leading to vascular dementia.

Brain-targeted Proanthocyanidin Metabolites for Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment J of Neuroscience 32 (15) April 2012 Mount Sinai in New York researchers gave red wine polyphenols catechin and epicatechin in drinking water to lab rats. They found that modified polyphenols were absorbed after digestion and instead of being metabolized without benefit, they accumulated in the brain when the structure of the polyphenols was altered from a polymer to a monomer. This is the first study to show that these chemicals can end up in the brain. Rats on monomer combination showed fewer symptoms of Alzheimer’s and appeared to be more intelligent. There is hope that this discovery will eventually lead to a therapy for Alzheimer’s.

Alcohol and Risk of Parkinson’s Disease in a Large, Prospective Cohort of Men and Women Mov Disord 27 (8) June 2012 The results of this large, prospective study found that consumption of beer, wine and liquor was not associated with risk for Parkinson’s Disease.

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