Can't Remember What I Forgot

The latest research on memory loss and the aging brain

Drinking Causes Your Brain To Shrink? What Else is New?

Moderate drinkers have less brain volume. So what?

        Turns out all you need to do is have two drinks (or more) a day and, voila!, honey you've shrunk your brain.  Such is the news coming out today from a study of about 2000 adults:  teetotalers have bigger brains (in volume) than either light drinkers or heavy drinkers, while the brains of heavy drinkers are smaller.  Before you and your shrunken brain pour that bottle of pinot noir down the drain, and retreat to the sun deck to nurse a glass of milk , though, consider this: doctors have long known that heavy drinking can contribute to dementia. One of my favorite brain slides shows two brains, side by side.  They both have a lot of cerebral spinal fluid between the cortex and the skull, and they both have a lot of CSF in the ventricles (which are essentially the brain's waste-water facility).  To an untrained eye, the brains look identical, and if you were to have met their owners when they were still alive, they very well might have behaved in a similar way because both were demented.  Only the one on the right had Alzheimer's, while the one on the left was suffering from alcohol-induced dementia.  (This slide should be part of the standard health curriculum at everyhigh school.)

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        What's new about the study just published in the October issue of the Archives of Neurology  is that it seems to be showing an effect at moderate levels of alcohol consumption, the very moderate levels that we've been told are good for our heart.  But don't give up that one glass of wine with dinner just yet.  First of all, the amount of brain shrinkage reported by the researcher isn't great--about 1.5% difference between for those who drink heavily and those who don't drink at all. While it's possible that that degree of difference will turn out to be significant, that remains to be seen.  Second, this is a correlation study, not a causation study.  No one is saying that drinking a glass or two of wine with dinner, or having a couple of beers while watching the presidential debate, will lead to dementia. The connection between brain size and dementia still needs to be explored in a systematic way.  Until it is, moderation in most things.  Interestingly, what the researchers had hoped to find was that moderate drinking had a protective effect on the brain--that it possibly slowed down normal, age-related brain shrinkage.  Turns out that it doesn't.

       The alcohol-shrinks-your-brain theme is good for grabbing headlines, but right now it's just an interesting "finding." Skol!

Sue Halpern is scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and author, most recently, of Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From The Front Lines of Memory Research.

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