New study shows that regular alcohol consumption shrinks the brain

by mcardinal

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 


It used to be said that a glass of red wine every day was good for your health, however new research is showing that this may not be true. The results of a new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were published in Nature Communications that highlighted the side effects of regular alcohol consumption, even in small amounts. Previous research on alcohol use has shown that, in excess, it causes many chronic health issues and can have a damaging impact on the brain. 

Researchers had access to brain MRI’s of over 36,000 “healthy middle-aged and older adults” that were stored by the UK Biobank. The available data included “high-quality MRI brain scans, alcohol-related behavioral phenotypes, and measurements of the socioeconomic environment.” This database has allowed researchers to mine for health information in a number of other studies. For this research, scientists evaluated brain scans to determine the effect of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) on the brain. Researchers grouped individuals in accordance with their average daily alcohol intake. 

Previous research has shown that alcohol use is linked to heart health, some cancers, liver damage, and premature aging. The impact of one alcoholic drink per day was comparable to two years of brain aging for a middle-aged person; for those who consumed two alcoholic drinks per day, the impact was comparable to 10 years of brain aging as compared to nondrinkers. Researchers were able to clearly identify negative relationships between alcohol consumption and both gray and white matter of the brain. This correlates to macrostructure and microstructure changes in those who drink multiple alcoholic drinks. These changes are also thought to impact cognitive functioning.

The study suggested that even one or two drinks per day had a damaging effect, causing the brain to shrink, with these changes becoming more apparent as “alcohol intake increases.” On average those who drank a glass of wine or one can of a higher-potency beer were found to have smaller brains than those that did not drink. However, there were some limitations to the research. The MRIs show a snapshot of the brain at a specific time and the study relied on self-reported use of alcohol, which could not be verified. Self-reporting can be an inaccurate form of data collection, especially in those considered heavy drinkers. Researchers also noted that moderate use could not definitively be a contributing factor to brain shrinkage. 

Ultimately, however, researchers say that the results of this study were “remarkable” as they were able to include data from a large sample size across the whole spectrum of drinking, when compared to previous studies which only compared heavy drinkers with those that did not drink or consumed very little alcohol. Reagan Wetherill, one of the study leaders, said “We’re told that moderate or low levels of alcohol are safe, but we saw that there was a global basic effect on brain volume even at one drink.” The study findings led many of the researchers to reevaluate their own alcohol intake, with many determining to cut back themselves.

The research team plans to further evaluate the impact of alcohol on the brain. Study co-author and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, Gideon Nave, said in the statement that “this study looked at average consumption, but we’re curious whether drinking one beer per day is better than drinking none during the week and then seven on the weekend,” adding “there’s some evidence that binge drinking is worse for the brain, but we haven’t looked closely at that yet.”