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Monday’s medical myth: alcohol kills brain cells

Do you ever wake up with a raging hangover and picture the row of brain cells that you suspect have have started to decay? Or wonder whether that final glass of wine was too much for those tiny cells…

Booze won’t kill your brain cells but it can still harm your brain. Image from shutterstock.com

Do you ever wake up with a raging hangover and picture the row of brain cells that you suspect have have started to decay? Or wonder whether that final glass of wine was too much for those tiny cells, and pushed you over the line?

Well, it’s true that alcohol can indeed harm the brain in many ways. But directly killing off brain cells isn’t one of them.

The brain is made up of nerve cells (neurons) and glial cells. These cells communicate with each other, sending signals from one part of the brain to the other, telling your body what to do. Brain cells enable us to learn, imagine, experience sensation, feel emotion and control our body’s movement.

Alcohol’s effects can be seen on our brain even after a few drinks, causing us to feel tipsy. But these symptoms are temporary and reversible. The available evidence suggests alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells directly.

There is some evidence that moderate drinking is linked to improved mental function. A 2005 Australian study of 7,500 people in three age cohorts (early 20s, early 40s and early 60s) found moderate drinkers (up to 14 drinks for men and seven drinks for women per week) had better cognitive functioning than non-drinkers, occasional drinkers and heavy drinkers.

But there is also evidence that even moderate drinking may impair brain plasticity and cell production. Researchers in the United States gave rats alcohol over a two-week period, to raise their alcohol blood concentration to about 0.08. While this level did not impair the rats’ motor skills or short-term learning, it impacted the brain’s ability to produce and retain new cells, reducing new brain cell production by almost 40%. Therefore, we need to protect our brains as best we can.

Even moderate drinking may impair brain plasticity. Image from shutterstock.com

Excessive alcohol undoubtedly damages brain cells and brain function. Heavy consumption over long periods can damage the connections between brain cells, even if the cells are not killed. It can also affect the way your body functions. Long-term drinking can cause brain atrophy or shrinkage, as seen in brain diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

There is debate about whether permanent brain damage is caused directly or indirectly.

We know, for example, that severe alcoholic liver disease has an indirect effect on the brain. When the liver is damaged, it’s no longer effective at processing toxins to make them harmless. As a result, poisonous toxins reach the brain, and may cause hepatic encephalopathy (decline in brain function). This can result in changes to cognition and personality, sleep disruption and even coma and death.

Alcoholism is also associated with nutritional and absorptive deficiencies. A lack of Vitamin B1 (thiamine) causes brain disorders called Wernicke’s ncephalopathy (which manifests in confusion, unsteadiness, paralysis of eye movements) and Korsakoff’s syndrome (where patients lose their short-term memory and coordination).

So, how much alcohol is okay?

To reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury, the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends healthy adults drink no more than two standard drinks on any day. Drinking less frequently (such as weekly rather than daily) and drinking less on each occasion will reduce your lifetime risk.

Health guidelines suggest men and women drink no more than two standard drinks a day. Image from shutterstock.com

To avoid alcohol-related injuries, adults shouldn’t drink more than four standard drinks on a single occasion. This applies to both sexes because while women become intoxicated with less alcohol, men tend to take more risks and experience more harmful effects.

For pregnant women and young people under the age of 18, the guidelines say not drinking is the safest option.

So while alcohol may not kill brain cells, if this myth encourages us to rethink that third beer or glass of wine, I won’t mind if it hangs around.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    Thank Chr....what was his name? for that!

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  2. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    How many standard drinks in a "glass of wine" or a "beer"?

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    1. Rosemary Stanton

      Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Trevor Kerr

      A standard drink = 10g of alcohol.

      Check the wine bottle Trevor - it usually tells you how many standard drinks in the bottle. Many Australian wines have more than 8 standard drinks - making a typical glass of wine equal to 2 standard drinks.

      Many wine drinkers report that they share a bottle of wine with a friend or partner. They assume this equates to having 2 glasses each. With most wines, half a bottle = 4 standard drinks.

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  3. John Farrell

    Dangerous Lunatic

    Do we observe people in Muslim countries, where they are mostly non-drinkers, being more intelligent than in countries such as Australia and Germany where people are heavy drinkers?

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    1. John Hopkins

      Social Engineer

      In reply to John Farrell

      Muslims brains are "Hobbled" by their ridiculous religion & most never reach their potential. That's why we don't often see/hear about Muslims doing anything worthwhile. They are forcibly "Brainwashed" from an early age.

      Our species as a whole, is "Hobbled" by either religion or our western "Pseudo-Religion" of Drunkeness, Gambling & moronic Ball games, (particluarly all types of "Football").

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  4. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    I don't drink because I don't want to give my hard earned money to some Godless, amoral, sociopath, multi-national corporation.
    When a company gets life imprisonment because it murders even one person, then I will believe that they are people.
    How many deaths have the booze industries been responsible for? How many executives had ended up in the slammer?

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    1. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Arthur James Egleton Robey

      "I don't want to give my hard earned money to some Godless, amoral, sociopath, multi-national corporation"

      Do you eat food? Do you drive a car? Not quite sure how you can get through life in modern society without giving your money to one of those sorts of corporations.

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  5. Neville Mattick
    Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    A great article and although I don't drink it confirms things I see around the community.

    Life is hard enough to exist without rubbish like this medicating the vulnerable for no good physical reason.

    Although, I do like a good coffee once a day, so I have the weakness.

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  6. John Hopkins

    Social Engineer

    Ethanol (Alcohol) breaks down the Myelin sheathing around ALL Nervous system cells which does in fact, inevitably destroy the cell that it is charged with protecting.

    Indeed, Ethanol is VERY destructive of most cells within the body as it dissolves lipids (fat type compounds) which protect ALL cells within the body.

    We have allowed one of the most "Directly Destructive" drugs known to man, to be made Legal while TRULY SAFE compounds (such as the Cannabinoids - which are TRULY BENEFICIAL - See The Documentary; "What If Cannabis Cured Cancer") are "kept down" by corrupt Politicians and their Thugs; Police.

    The VAST majority of Politicians & Police Thugs are Ethanol addicts & MOST are morally corrupt TO THE EXTREME.

    Time to wake up & smell the Grass folks.

    Wakey wakey.

    It's not THAT hard to do.

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