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Does Alcohol Consumption Kill Brain Cells?

Dayton DUI Attorney Charles Rowland > DUI Law  > Drugs & Alcohol  > Does Alcohol Consumption Kill Brain Cells?

Does Alcohol Consumption Kill Brain Cells?

alcohol brainIt has become a common belief that alcohol consumption kills brain cells, but is that true?

Much of the anti-alcohol rhetoric comes from the prohibition era.  The early temperance writers made the assertion that alcohol killed brain cells and also insisted that the alcohol in their blood could cause “drunkards” to catch fire and burn alive. Hanson, David J. Alcohol Education: What we Must Do. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1996, p. 13.  While such over the top arguments have been dropped, they have left the impression that drinking alcohol hurts your brain.  Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

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.  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.

Older people who drink in moderation generally suffer less mental decline than do abstainers, another study finds. Ganguli, M., et al. Alcohol consumption and cognitive function in late life: A longitudinal community study. Neurology, 2005, 65, 1210-12-17.  Moderate alcohol consumption protects older persons from the development of cognitive impairment.  Zuccala, G. , et al. Dose-related impact of alcohol consumption on cognitive function in advanced age: Results of a multicenter study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2001, 25, 1743-174.  A study reported at the annual Congress of Epidemiology in Toronto found moderate consumption of alcohol to be associated with superior mental function among older women compared to abstainers. Harrison, P.G. Moderate Drinking Helps Preserve Women’s Brains. Reuters Health, June 15, 2001. See also Reuters, Associated Press, ABCNEWS, and HealthSCOUT of same date.  Women who consume alcohol moderately on a daily basis are about 20% less likely than abstainers to experience poor memory and decreased thinking abilities, according to recent research.Stampfer, M.J., et al. Effects of moderate alcohol consumption on cognitive function in women. New England Journal of Medicine, 2005, 352, 245-253; Heslam, Jessica. Women age better with a fine wine: Study: Alcohol helps memory. Boston Herald, January 20, 2005; Stein, Rob. Study: Moderate drinking good for cognitive health. Washington Post, January 20, 2005.

Of course, long-term heavy consumption can lead to problems.  Alcohol has a severe dehydrating effect on the body. In extreme cases the body may become so dehydrated that permanent damage is caused to the brain. This is one effect of a condition known as alcohol poisoning.  Alcohol-related brain damage is also used to encompass several medical conditions related to alcohol consumption. These include alcohol-related dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.  Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by a deficiency in thiamine, also known as vitamin B1. This deficiency is common to many alcoholics – up to 80%.  Alcohol consumption has been associated with mental health problems, such as anxietyor depression.  Moreover, more serious mental health problems, such as psychosis, can be caused by “extreme levels of drinking.”

Some studies suggest that alcohol consumption does not kill brain cells, but it can damage them. It damages the dendrites of neurons which bring information to the cell body.  The damage results in problems relaying information between the brain cells.  Not surprisingly, the damage particularly affects the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain concerned with learning and motor coordination.    Research on rats suggests that the damage caused by binge drinking can be temporary.  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. Nixon, K. and Crews, F. The Journal of Neuroscience, Oct. 27, 2004; vol 24: pp 9714-9722.  But even in such extreme cases, there’s a lack of evidence that alcohol kills brain cells.

Ohio DUI Attorney Charles M. Rowland II dedicates his practice to defending the accused drunk driver in the Miami Valley and throughout Ohio.  He has the credentials and the experience to win your case and has made himself Dayton’s choice for drunk driving defense. Contact Charles Rowland by phone at (937) 318-1384 or toll-free at 1-888-ROWLAND (888-769-5263). If you need assistance after hours, call the 24/7 DUI Hotline at (937) 776-2671.  You can have DaytonDUI at your fingertips by downloading the DaytonDUI Android App or have DaytonDUI sent directly to your mobile device by texting DaytonDUI (one word) to 50500.  Follow DaytonDUI on Facebook, @DaytonDUI on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Pheed and Pintrest or get RSS of the Ohio DUI blog.  You can emailCharlesRowland@DaytonDUI.com or visit his office at 2190 Gateway Dr., Fairborn, Ohio 45324.  “All I do is DUI defense.”

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Charles Rowland


Charles M. Rowland II has been representing the accused drunk driver for over 20 years. Contact him at (937) 318-1384 if you find yourself facing a DUI (now called OVI) charge.

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