Drinking our way to brain fitness

alcohol related dementiaAs we reported last week, drinking the occasional glass of wine might help to stave off depression. This week we learned how to better protect ourselves from that wine we’ve been drinking!

Previous studies have shown that long-term alcohol abuse increases the risk of dementia. But according to new research from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, omega-3 fish oil might help protect against alcohol-related dementia.

The Loyola study found that in the brain cells of rats exposed to high levels of alcohol, a fish oil compound protected against inflammation and cell death.

fish oilThe study by Michael Collins, PhD, and colleagues was reported Sept. 8 at the 14th Congress of the European Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism.  An earlier analysis by Collins and Loyola colleague Edward Neafsey, PhD, which pooled the results of 143 studies, found that moderate social drinking may reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment.

It appears that small amounts of alcohol might, in effect, make brain cells more fit. Alcohol in moderate amounts stresses cells and thus toughens them up to cope with major stresses down the road that could cause dementia.

However, as always, moderation is the key! Too much alcohol overwhelms the cells, leading to inflammation and cell death. The study authors defined moderate as one drink per day for women and two for men.

mouse & fish oilIn the new study, Collins and colleagues exposed cultures of adult rat brain cells to amounts of alcohol equivalent to more than four times the legal limit for driving. These cell cultures were compared with cultures of brain cells exposed to the same high levels of alcohol, plus a compound found in fish oil called omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).  Researchers found there was about 90% less neuroinflammation and neuronal death in the brain cells exposed to DHA and alcohol than in the cells exposed to alcohol alone.

Of course, being a health blog we should point out that the best way for an alcohol abuser to protect their brain is to quit drinking or to cut back to moderate amounts.  But as Collins says: “Fish oil has the potential of helping preserve brain integrity in abusers. At the very least, it wouldn’t hurt them.”

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