There has been some controversy over whether drinking alcohol has detrimental effects on brain health. Some studies indicate that drinking small amounts may be part of a brain-healthy diet, while other studies show that even small amounts of alcohol can increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
The latest alcohol and Alzheimer’s study reveals that it may interrupt the body’s natural ability to clear amyloid plaques from the brain. Read more about the research and the link between alcohol and the disease.
Alcohol and Alzheimer’s
A hallmark symptom of Alzheimer’s, amyloid plaques accumulate in the brain and interfere with normal nerve cell transmission that affects how the brain stores memories.
The body has its own natural way of removing these amyloid plaques from the brain through the “glymphatic system” and cells called “activated microglial cells.” These structures perform a maneuver to remove the amyloid and dump it into the blood and lymphatic system during sleep, in which two times the amount of amyloid is removed compared to the waking hours.
Researchers at The University of Illinois at Chicago set out to examine alcohol and Alzheimer’s by studying the effects of consumption on these activated microglial cells. Microglial cells in the central nervous system act as the first line of defense against nerve cell damage or infections and scientists hypothesize that when a person ingests alcohol on a long-term basis, the microglial cells may become inflamed and cease to function.
To prove this theory, researchers exposed one group of rats to alcohol. The second group of rats was exposed to inflammatory cells called cytokines and a third group was exposed to alcohol and cytokines. After 24 hours, the researchers analyzed the cells to evaluate whether there was a change in their gene expression and whether the microglial cells could still engulf the unhealthy amyloid protein.
After analyzing the data, scientists discovered that the microglial cells that were exposed to alcohol had approximately 15% of their ability to engulf amyloid inhibited, after just one hour. The study’s findings were published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation.
The Link Between Alcohol and the Disease
Dr. Douglas Feinstein, professor of anesthesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and lead study author, explained that the results of the study suggested that alcohol inhibits the ability of microglia to efficiently clear amyloid from the brain —which he believes may contribute to a higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
“There is a large literature supporting the idea that [even] low amounts of alcohol can be beneficial; not only peripherally, but in the brain. However, it might be prudent that if someone is at risk to develop Alzheimer’s, they should consider reducing their intake and certainly avoid binge or heavy drinking,” said Feinstein.
Dr. David Reynolds, the chief scientific officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, stated in an interview with Newsweek Magazine that “it is hard to determine what level of consumption begins to affect the long-term health of the brain, but “there is strong evidence that regular, heavy drinking increases the risk of dementia.”
The study has revealed some groundbreaking evidence about alcohol use and the risk of Alzheimer’s, but more studies are needed so that conclusive evidence about the effects of consumption on the brain can be gathered. Dr. James A. Hendrix, the director of global science initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association, commented that although the rat study results were interesting, the study involved “very preliminary work.”
“We’re still very far away from drawing any conclusions that would impact a person’s day-to-day life,” Dr. Hendrix told Newsweek, adding that “no one should start drinking as a means of lowering dementia risk.”
Have you, a parent or senior loved one seen the effects of alcohol and Alzheimer’s in your family? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.