Thinking of cracking open a cold one this weekend? Researchers from the University of Oxford have identified a connection between alcohol consumption and the shrinking of the brain’s gray matter, according to a new study. The team found that any amount of alcohol could negatively affect the brain, meaning that current “drink in moderation” public health guidelines may need to be revised. The study was uploaded onto the pre-print server medRxiv ahead of peer review.
In this observational study, 25,000 people in the UK were surveyed to assess their self-reported alcohol intake. Scans of their brains were also taken. Analyses revealed that the more participants drank, the greater the reduction in the volume of their gray matter (regions of the brain that control muscle control, sensory perception, and decision-making).
Alcohol’s contribution to these neurological changes was found to be small (under 1 percent), but this was greater than other “modifiable” risk factors. Additionally, having an underlying health issue such as high blood pressure or obesity, or engaging in binge drinking puts individuals at even higher risks of a decline in grey matter.
This data joins a growing body of evidence that has put current alcohol consumption guidelines in the spotlight. Moderate consumption of red wine, for example, was previously touted as having protective health benefits by reducing the risk of heart disease. However, more recent studies have shown that this may not be good advice after all. In fact, less than one drink a day can significantly increase the risk for some types of cancer, and even drinking within the current recommended limit can have serious health consequences. Indeed, recent statistics indicate that alcohol was the leading risk factor for chronic disease and premature death in adults between 15 and 49 worldwide, accounting for nearly one in 10 deaths.
Given the detrimental effects on the brain associated with alcohol consumption, the authors call for “low risk” drinking guidelines to be amended. To better understand these complex relationships, the researchers say more work needs to be done to understand whether these effects are reversible with abstinence, the duration of drinking needed to have these effects on the brain and whether drinking at certain life stages (adolescence or older age) may exacerbate these effects.