Alcohol Does Not Kill Brain Cells

Daven Hiskey October 4, 2010 19
Myth: Alcohol kills brain cells.

Now, to qualify that title, pure alcohol will absolutely kill brain cells and many other types of cells, which is why it is used as a disinfectant. However, recent research has shown that the quantity of alcohol you could possibly take in, without killing yourself, does not introduce enough alcohol into your bloodstream to kill brain cells. This was proven by a study by Grethe Jensen and co. (1993), who meticulously counted neurons in matched samples of non-alcoholics and alcoholics. What they found was that there was no real difference in the density or overall number of neurons between the two groups. Various other research since has backed up Jensen’s findings. Thus, even alcoholics who are continually taking in unhealthy amounts of alcohol aren’t going to see brain cells die because of their drinking problem. However, alcohol does have other effects on the brain, both positive and negative, that have nothing to do with brain cells dying.

First, the positive: drinking moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis has been shown to have various positive effects on your body. The one that pertains to this article’s topic is that it has been shown to help protect people from cognitive impairment as they age. According to a study done at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, in Italy, 29% of people 65 years or older who almost never drank alcohol throughout their life had mental impairment issues. On the flip-side of that, only about 19% of people 65 years or older who drank moderate amounts of alcohol regularly had any mental impairment. It was further discovered that, among the various groups where other problems, such as health problems or the like, might impair them mentally, the same trend appeared. In every group, those who drank moderately on a regular basis throughout their lives always had a diminished chance of becoming mentally impaired in their old age compared to those who didn’t drink at all or almost never drank.

Now for the negative (there’s a lot when it comes to intemperate alcohol consumption, so I’ll only cover a few): while brain cells aren’t being killed as the result of drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, the ability for your brain cells to communicate with one another is being inhibited. What’s going on here is that the alcohol ends up damaging dendrites, which are the things at the ends of neurons that conduct electrochemical stimulation from another cell to the cell body in question. Basically, with some of these dendrites damaged, it inhibits the ability of your brain cells to talk to one another.

Luckily, you have an amazing number of connections and neurons in your brain (about 100 billion neurons, along with 10′s of billions of glial cells, which support the neurons). So this helps mask the problem. Also, even among long time alcoholics, it has been shown that simply quitting drinking copious amounts of alcohol is all that is required for your body to be able to reverse most of the damage to the dendrites and restore the ability for your brain cells to communicate. So you can afford to damage some of the neurons temporarily without any real lasting effect.

Unfortunately, for the people who have an extreme habit of excessively drinking, there are other side effects on your brain that aren’t so easily completely fixed, such as developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is characterized by: confusion, coordination problems, hallucinations, memory problems, eye problems, and even inducing a coma or death, if it’s left untreated. What’s going on here is that excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time causes a vitamin B1 deficiency (8 out of 10 alcoholics are vitamin B1 deficient), due to the alcohol inhibiting the body’s ability to absorb thiamine (also many alcoholics are often malnourished because of their own bad eating habits). This, in turn, causes neuron death, among other things. This is treatable, in most cases, but certain effects stick around forever as your body won’t be able to repair itself completely from this particular brand of damage.

Another brain-related side effect caused by excessive drinking is that high doses of alcohol, while not killing your brain cells, inhibits the growth of new brain cells. However, recent research has shown, at least with rats, that once the alcohol was no longer given to the rats, new brain cell production went into overdrive to try to compensate for the previously inhibited brain cell production. Now, if you go for long enough without giving your brain a chance to recover, drinking excessively on a regular basis, it is thought there may still be lasting effects due to this inhibited new brain cell growth over extended periods, but whether this is actually the case or not, isn’t yet known.

There are also a variety of other known neurological problems that are associated with intemperate alcohol consumptions over long periods of time and some that even show up in a short amount of time in children and teens who abuse alcohol, but this article is already too long. :-) Then of course, there are the myriad of other problems, non-brain related that come with alcoholism, such as liver problems, other nervous system problems outside of how it affects your brain, and others.

Bottom line, alcohol consumed in moderation, such as a small glass of wine a day, can be very good for you. On the other hand, drinking excessively won’t kill you brain cells directly, but is still bad for your brain. Although, your body can compensate, to a certain extent, and repair the damage caused in most cases, at least as far as your brain is concerned, so long as you don’t make a regular habit of it.

Bonus Facts:

  • Another myth concerning alcohol that was once spread about, particularly during Prohibition, but to which I don’t think anyone actually believes anymore (at least I hope not!), is that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to spontaneous combustion due to alcohol being flammable and it coursing through your veins. This is ridiculous on many levels, but nevertheless, was a popular notion during Prohibition and for a while afterwards. The myth that alcohol kills brain cells was also widely popularized during Prohibition.
  • There are several things that contribute to hangovers, but principally what’s going on here is simple dehydration. Alcohol has a dehydrating effect by inhibiting the release of vasopressin, which is an anti-diuretic hormone. So in layman’s terms, the result of alcohol inhibiting the vasopressin is that your body produces a lot more urine than normal with the result that you become dehydrated easily.
  • Scientists once believed that the number of nerve cells you have in your brain, once you reach adulthood, was all you’d ever have. Thus, damaging these cells could be extremely detrimental to the individual. However, this isn’t correct. New neurons are created all the time in the adult brain, in a process that is called neurogenesis.

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19 Comments »

  1. Joe July 4, 2012 at 8:47 am - Reply

    It is unfortunate that this article does not seem to balanced. One thing not mentioned is the alcohol industry is very influential so anything contrary to alcohol drinking will not be tolerated. Also, alcohol is a toxin… a poison. It is also classified as a drug and by definition a drug can not be “Good for you” or “Heart healthy” or “Heart smart” With that said, if a person wants to drink, they can. It is legal. However, legal does not make it okay. The article ends with alcohol “drinking can be very good for you” is clearly a bias ending. Not drinking alcohol is “good” for you. Eating a healthy diet, proper exercise, reducing stress and engaging in “new” learning is absolutely “good” for you. If you don’t take care of yourself then drugs can compensate with often devastating consequences–even death. So… “Bottom line,” it is okay not to drink alcohol. However, it is not okay to eat poorly, allow stress to consume your life, avoid “new” learning.

  2. rome July 11, 2012 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    I agree to you Joe, this article is giving license to everyone that drinking is fine while is not..confusing stuff..why drink it if will effects your health particular your brain?

  3. Anonymous October 5, 2012 at 12:35 am - Reply

    One paragraph suggesting that a moderate amount of alcohol has a protective effect against age-related mental impairment in an 8 paragraph article is too much for the modern day Prohibition, apparently.

  4. tremon October 10, 2012 at 5:15 am - Reply

    @joe: ‘…by definition a drug can not be “Good for you” or “Heart healthy” or “Heart smart”…’

    Sir Alexander Fleming is rolling in his grave. If you must flaunt your ignorance online, at least to avoid such obvious falsehoods in the future.

    You would do well to avoid tea and coffee too, because they contain theanine and caffeine, both psychoactive drugs.

  5. me. January 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm - Reply

    Everything is toxic in excessive amount. There are many research available telling us many alcohol beverages are good for us, in the right amount. Just look at how the French drink.

  6. Peter February 13, 2013 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    So! What do you know?
    The Bible was right after all! It is good for a man (person) to become “merry with wine,” to celebrate with “intoxicating wine” such as when Jesus turned a large quantity of water into “fine wine,” and as the apostle Paul told Timothy, a LITTLE wine is good for the stomach, too.

    In connection with child development and fostering, I have studied the effect of alcohol in the developing brain.
    I believe the greatest danger of alcohol is its affect on humans whose brains are not fully developed. That includes everyone from the unborn to those in their MID TWENTIES! That’s right, our brains are not fully formed until we are about twenty five! and the last part to develop enables one to have a fuller, more complete understanding of the consequences of our actions.
    That means we are allowing our children to decide on sexual activity at sixteen, to drive a deadly weapon at seventeen, and to consume a toxin that WILL inhibit their brain’s growth and development at eighteen, but they are not fully endowed with the ability to make enlightened decisions with consideration of their consequences for about another seven years! Why do we care so little for our kids?

    Thanks for reporting these newly established facts from up-to-date research.

    By the way, my dad died from cirrhosis of the liver. He suffered an unbearable dermatitis as a result of his time in Pacific islands during WWII that resulted in him turning to alcohol for relief. It helped in the short term but it eventually killed him. My family don’t demonise alcohol but hold a balanced view, recognising its benefits and its dangers.
    We enjoy a wine with a steak, or a beer or two after a hot day of work, and always remain vigilant to the dangers of excess. “me” is correct; even water is toxic in excess!

    Great article!

  7. Peter February 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    Just one more thought;
    Insurance companies have known about this age of full brain development for a long time. Just check the conditions relating to insuring a car/bike when the driver is under twenty five!

    Regards, Peter

  8. sylvie October 6, 2013 at 11:26 am - Reply

    fact: alcohol use can cause irreversible neurologic damage in the form of wernicke-korsakoff syndrome. fact: alcohol (even “moderate” use) can cause irreversible damage to many other important organ systems, most notably, of course, the liver. it is irresponsible to public health to post poorly balanced articles such as this…

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey October 6, 2013 at 4:05 pm - Reply

      @slyvie: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are different conditions that are both due to brain damage caused by a lack of vitamin B1. This is commonly seen in long time alcoholics, but also many others. Nowhere is this article advocating becoming an alcoholic.
      .
      “Fact: alcohol (even “moderate” use) can cause irreversible damage to many other important organ systems, most notably, of course, the liver.” I’d like to see some scientific research backing that claim and particularly the percentages of people so drastically negatively affected by “moderate” alcohol use. The liver is perfectly capable of handling moderate amounts of alcohol. This is a good thing, because small amounts are created in your intestines all the time and your body has to be able to deal with this constantly.
      .
      “it is irresponsible to public health to post poorly balanced articles such as this…” I doubt this article has affected anyone’s health whatsoever. Further, did you miss this part “Now for the negative (there’s a lot when it comes to intemperate alcohol consumption, so I’ll only cover a few)…” I spent one paragraph talking about the positives of moderate alcohol consumption, then five talking about the negatives of drinking alcohol… hmmm. I guess you’re right, that isn’t balanced. ;-)

  9. kevin January 10, 2014 at 2:39 pm - Reply

    @Daven Hiskey: The Mayo Clinic is generally a pretty nice source for sound advice. As for liver damage, moderate alcohol consumption does lead to some liver damage (steatosis, fatty liver), but this is considered REVERSIBLE by pathologist. There is some evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption over many years increases one’s risk of developing a more serious illness of the liver known as cirrhosis, but this has not been strong enough to work its way into recommendations (for example the Mayo Clinic recommendations: http://www.mayoclinic.org/alcohol/art-20044551?pg=1) I’m just a bored med student pulling stuff from class, Mayo Clinic, and an evidenced-based medicine clinical tool called UpToDate, Inc.

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