Alcohol And The Brain


Drinking alcohol affects the entire body. Not all of these effects are harmful. For example, red wine has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, and whiskey—the very name of which means "water of life"—has long been used to alleviate thought pain due to coughing. However, not everything alcohol can do is as benign as that. On top of the somewhat high addiction potential of alcohol, long-time drinkers can develop symptoms of brain damage or cognitive impairment. This is particularly the case with alcoholics, who drink heavily as well as frequently. Alcohol use has been associated with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other cognitive deficit brought on by alcohol and affecting functions such as motor control and memory.

These deficits are generally attributed to brain cells atrophying, or dying off, as a result of alcohol consumption. However, why this effect should come about is not clear. Now scientists think they have some new insight into the mechanism. What they found was that effected brain cells are located primarily in the structure of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for abstract thinking. In particular, alcohol damages proteins that help determine the shape of the neurons, and others that determine how those neurons are to be assembled to create the cell structure. Changes in that structure can result in confusion within the brain, with the result that the drinker’s thoughts and behavior are affected.

The good news is that the increased understanding of the condition makes a solution closer than ever. In fact, some scientists are recommending aerobics to counter the damage to the prefrontal cortex. Aerobic exercise has been found to be helpful for people with other cognitive problems, such as Alzheimer’s, and so there’s some precedent for believing that it might work here. Moreover, recent research has shown that exercise can help develop the brain as well as the body. That means that some types of damage, including from alcohol, can be partly "cleaned up" by getting more exercise. In this case, it’s not the prefrontal cortex but the white matter—the substance called myelin the wraps around and protect the nerve fibers—that is damaged by alcohol, but saved by exercise.

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