Historically, the most celebrated benefit of alcohol on memory was its ability to erase it. Now, a recent study may have found moderate alcohol consumption to lead to higher episodic memory, or the ability to recall memories of past events. Published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, the researchers focused on data from over 660 patients in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort, subjecting them to surveys on their alcohol consumption and neuropsychological assessments.
The patients were also screened for the presence or absence of the Alzheimer’s disease risk factor APOE e4 (which could potentially be exacerbated by alcohol) and subjected to MRI brain scans. The researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, University of Kentucky and University of Maryland found even light alcohol consumption to be associated with larger volume in the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for episodic memory. They also found that the amount of alcohol consumption had no impact on their executive functions and overall cognitive ability according to the MRI results.
Although causal evidence of a link between alcohol use and larger hippocampal volume could not be found due to ethical constraints, animal studies in the past have shown that moderate alcohol consumption may contribute to the preservation of the brain region’s volume by encouraging the generation of new neural networks within it. Both studies also suggest that exposing the brain to alcohol may be prompting the release of neurochemicals that aid in processing functions, which in itself could be encouraging the development of new neural connections.
However, the results only extended to the 60 years old and above age range of the test group, with virtually no changes in hippocampal volume being observed in the other demographics.
“There were no significant differences in cognitive functioning and regional brain volumes during late life according to reported midlife alcohol consumption status. This may be due to the fact that adults who are able to continue consuming alcohol into old age are healthier, and therefore have higher cognition and larger regional brain volumes than people who had to decrease their alcohol consumption due to unfavorable health outcomes,” said Brian Downer of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), lead author of the study.
Drinking and stem cell production
Whether light to moderate alcohol consumption is maintaining cognitive functions or actually increasing cognition requires further research. However, if the researchers are correct, then alcohol appears to be stimulating the stem cells in the hippocampus, the only known area of the brain that is capable of generating new brain networks (others are capable of establishing new connections but do not create new networks from scratch). Once the mechanisms are understood better, therapeutic interventions could be used to replicate its effects without the brain damage and other issues that come with alcohol consumption.
Being an addiction treatment center, one of our core values at Sovereign Health is helping those with alcohol abuse find recovery. Understanding that not everyone is compatible with the 12-step disease model (which involves complete abstinence), we offer non-12 step minded programs that teach healthy alcohol use versus outright abstinence. Recognizing any proven health benefits in addition to the obvious damage that it can inflict on our lives allows the patient a more balanced perspective, actually aiding in their recovery (as that demonizing and blaming alcohol for related problems can make it seem much more difficult to beat). If you would like more information on alcohol or Sovereign Health’s approach to its treatment, feel free to browse the rest of our site or contact us today.
Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer