Having just 4 drinks a week changes your brain: Study

Nancy Clanton
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

Many people have a cocktail before dinner or a drink to help them wind down at the end of the day. No big deal, right? According to a new observational study, that alcohol consumption might be changing your brain.

Anya Topiwala, of the University of Oxford in England, and her study co-authors linked moderate drinking — about four standard drinks a week in the United States — to higher brain iron levels in multiple basal ganglia regions.

The researcher analyzed 21,000 people in the U.K. Biobank cohort and found that more brain iron was "associated with poorer scores on tests of executive function, fluid intelligence, and reaction speed," the researchers reported in PLoS Medicine.

The researchers had three main reasons to do this study, they wrote. 

  • Growing evidence of moderate alcohol consumption negatively affecting the brain. 
  • Possibility that accumulation of iron in the brain could be the reason; higher brain iron has been described in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative conditions.
  • The researchers knew of no studies investigating whether brain iron levels differ by level of alcohol consumption.

"This is the first study, to our knowledge, demonstrating higher brain iron in moderate drinkers," Topiwala told MedPage Today. "The findings offer a potential pathway through which alcohol can cause cognitive decline.

Anya Topiwala, of the University of Oxford in England, and her study co-authors linked moderate drinking -- about four standard drinks a week in the United States -- to higher brain iron levels in multiple basal ganglia regions.

"Establishing the pathway is important as it may offer clues as to ways we can intervene to reduce the harm," she said. "For iron, we actually have medicines — iron chelators — that could reduce levels."

Dr. Henry Kranzler, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told MedPage Today the "findings, though, are largely limited to the basal ganglia, collections of brain cells that are involved in motor control, executive functions, and emotions." Kranzler was not involved in the research.

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