Even moderate drinking kills brain cells, increases Alzheimer’s risk

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Even casual drinkers may want to consider cutting back on alcohol consumption, according to researchers from Wake Forest University. Their study finds all it takes is a “modest amount” of alcohol to accelerate brain atrophy, or the loss of brain cells. Drinking also has a connection with the development of amyloid plaques, the toxic proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s the most common form of dementia, accounting for roughly 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. Meanwhile, this isn’t the first time scientists have linked alcohol to dementia. Prior studies reveal that alcohol use disorder a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. This latest research, however, took things a step further by analyzing how alcohol influences the progression and pathology of Alzheimer’s.

“These findings suggest alcohol might accelerate the pathological cascade of Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages,” says Shannon Macauley, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in a university release.

Drinking may also increase diabetes risk

Study authors used mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease-related pathology over the course of a 10-week chronic drinking strategy that gave rodents a choice between drinking water or alcohol. This ability to choose recreated human behavior regarding alcohol consumption. Researchers analyzed how voluntary, moderate consumption of alcohol influenced healthy brain function and behavior, as well as whether or not it altered the pathology associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Sure enough, alcohol increased brain atrophy while also increasing the amount of amyloid plaques. More specifically, alcohol appeared to promote more smaller plaques, potentially setting the stage for increased plaque proliferation in later years.

Notably, the research team adds that acute alcohol withdrawal also sparked more amyloid-beta levels, considered a key component of amyloid plaques that accumulate in Alzheimer’s.

When researchers opted to conduct further analyses, they discovered that chronic alcohol exposure seems to regulate brain and peripheral metabolism — which represents yet another way alcohol may accelerate Alzheimer’s disease pathology.  Prof. Macauley previously showed that elevated blood sugar increases amyloid-beta and amyloid plaques. Now, this latest project shows that even moderate drinking can elevate blood sugar and markers of insulin resistance. Consequently, risk of Alzheimer’s increases, as well as the risk of other ailments such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The study also notes that moderate alcohol use influenced anxiety and dementia-related behaviors.

“These preclinical findings suggest that even moderate consumption of alcohol can result in brain injury,” Prof. Macauley concludes. “Alcohol consumption may be a modifiable risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.”

The study is published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease.

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John Anderer

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