RUTGERS (US) — If moderate drinking slips into binge drinking, it can decrease the number of new brain cells by as much as 40 percent, new research shows.
Drinking a couple of glasses of wine each day has generally been considered a good way to promote cardiovascular and brain health, but there is a fine line between moderate and binge drinking—drinking less during the week and more on weekends can significantly reduce the structural integrity of the adult brain.
“Moderate drinking can become binge drinking without the person realizing it,” says Megan Anderson, a graduate fellow in the department of neuroscience and cell biology at Rutgers.
“In the short term there may not be any noticeable motor skills or overall functioning problems, but in the long term this type of behavior could have an adverse effect on learning and memory.”
Anderson and Tracey Shors, professor in behavioral and systems neuroscience, worked with postdoctoral fellow Miriam Nokia from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland to model moderate to heavy drinking in humans using rodents that reached a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent—the legal driving limit in the United States and many other countries—and found that brain cell production was affected negatively.
As reported online in the journal Neuroscience, the researchers discovered that at this level of intoxication in rats—comparable to about 3-4 drinks for women and five drinks for men—the number of nerve cells in the hippocampus of the brain were reduced by nearly 40 percent compared to those in the abstinent group of rodents.
The hippocampus is a part of the brain where the new neurons are made and is also known to be necessary for some types of new learning.
This level of alcohol intake was not enough to impair the motor skills of either male or female rats or prevent them from associative learning in the short-term. Still, Anderson says, this substantial decrease in brain cell numbers over time could have profound effects on the structural plasticity of the adult brain because these new cells communicate with other neurons to regulate brain health.
“If this area of your brain was affected every day over many months and years, eventually you might not be able to learn how to get somewhere new or to learn something new about your life,” she says.
“It’s something that you might not even be aware is occurring. This research indicates that social or daily drinking may be more harmful to brain health than what is now believed by the general public.”
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men who drink 14 drinks a week and women who drink seven are considered at-risk drinkers. Although college students commonly binge drink, according to the institute, 70 percent of binge drinking episodes involved adults age 26 and older.