Pictures of the inside of the head have shown some time ago: alcohol damages the brain cells in the long run. However, corresponding changes in the brain structure had previously been observed in chronic heavy alcohol consumption.

It has now been shown that even those who drink moderately but regularly cannot sit back and relax – even moderate amounts of alcohol damage the brain if they are consumed frequently.

This was discovered by a research team led by Reagan Wetherill from the Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia. For this purpose, data from 36,678 healthy adults aged 40 to 69 years were evaluated. These were deposited in the UK Biobank study – a comprehensive collection of health data from Britons.

They prove that the brain volume decreased overall with regular alcohol consumption, which particularly affected the gray matter. This consists of the cell bodies of the nerve cells. There was also poorer networking of the nerve cells via the nerve processes, which form the wise substance of the brain.

For their analysis, the researchers evaluate images from the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The state of the nerve cells could be assessed using what is known as diffusion tensor imaging.

The researchers were also able to detect disturbances at the nerve cell level using “Neurite orientation dispersion and density imaging” (NODDI).

The result: in people who consumed one to two glasses of alcohol a day, the changes corresponded to premature aging of the brain by one to two years. Anyone who drank two to three glasses of alcohol a day showed premature aging of the brain by around three and a half years.

The alcohol appears to affect large areas of the brain. The researchers found changes in 125 of 139 brain regions examined. However, some areas were more affected, including:

Because data was evaluated by so many people, the results are very reliable (highly significant). On this basis, the researchers were also able to show how great the influence of the alcohol dose on the damage was.

The more alcohol the participants regularly drank, the greater the damage to the nerve connections and the more brain matter was lost.

Three glasses of alcohol or more a day were defined as high consumption for women and four glasses or more for men.

From the data, the researchers were unable to determine whether the damage to those affected had actually affected brain functions such as memory or the ability to concentrate. In fact, we know that the mind can compensate for damage over a long period of time.

Such observational studies also provide no evidence that the hypothesis of alcohol as a trigger for brain damage is actually correct. The meaningfulness of the study is also weakened by the fact that the participants were only asked once about their current drinking behavior.

The researchers were therefore unable to determine whether the damage had already been caused in advance by higher consumption.

However, the observed connection between alcohol dose and brain damage suggests that alcohol actually causes corresponding damage to the brain, even when consumed in moderation.

The original of this article “Even moderate alcohol consumption has consequences for brain aging” comes from NetDoktor.