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A research on the effects of excessive drinking on people

Clearly, alcohol affects the brain. Some of these impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops. On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have brain deficits that persist well after he or she achieves sobriety.

Exactly how alcohol affects the brain and the likelihood of reversing the impact of heavy drinking on the brain remain hot topics in alcohol research today. And even moderate drinking leads to short—term impairment, as shown by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving.

This Alcohol Alert reviews some common disorders associated with alcohol—related brain damage and the people at greatest risk for impairment.

It looks at traditional as well as emerging therapies for the treatment and prevention of alcohol—related disorders and includes a brief look at the high—tech tools that are helping scientists to better understand the effects of alcohol on the brain.

Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce a blackout, or an interval of time for which the intoxicated person cannot recall key details of events, or even entire events. Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers than previously assumed and should be viewed as a potential consequence of acute intoxication regardless of age or whether the drinker is clinically dependent on alcohol 2.

Of those who reported drinking in the 2 weeks before the survey, 9. The students reported learning later that they had participated in a wide range of potentially dangerous events they could not remember, including vandalism, unprotected sex, and driving. College students may be at particular risk for experiencing a blackout, as an alarming number of college students engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking, for a typical adult, is defined as consuming five or more drinks in about 2 hours for men, or four or more drinks for women.

Equal numbers of men and women reported experiencing blackouts, despite the fact that the men drank significantly more often and more heavily than the women. This outcome suggests that regardless of the amount of alcohol consumption, females—a group infrequently studied in the literature on blackouts—are at greater risk than males for experiencing blackouts.

Females also may be more susceptible than males to milder forms of alcohol—induced memory impairments, even when men and women consume comparable amounts of alcohol 4. Women are more vulnerable than men to many of the medical consequences of alcohol use. For example, alcoholic women develop cirrhosis 5alcohol—induced damage of the heart muscle i.

Using imaging with computerized tomography, two studies 8,9 compared brain shrinkage, a common indicator of brain damage, in alcoholic men and women and reported that male and female alcoholics both showed significantly greater brain shrinkage than control subjects.

Studies also showed that both men and women have similar learning and memory problems as a result of heavy drinking 10.

The difference is that alcoholic women reported that they had been drinking excessively for only about half as long as the alcoholic men in these studies. Yet other studies have not shown such definitive findings. In fact, two reports appearing side by side in the American Journal of Psychiatry contradicted each other on the question of gender—related vulnerability to brain shrinkage in alcoholism 12,13.

Damage may be a result of the direct effects of alcohol on the brain or may result indirectly, from a poor general health status or from severe liver disease. For example, thiamine deficiency is a common occurrence in people with alcoholism and results from poor overall nutrition.

Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, is an essential nutrient required by all tissues, including the brain. Thiamine is found in foods such as meat and poultry; whole grain cereals; nuts; and dried beans, peas, and soybeans. Many foods in the United States commonly are fortified with thiamine, including breads and cereals. As a result, most people consume sufficient amounts of thiamine in their diets.

Wernicke—Korsakoff Syndrome Up to 80 percent of alcoholics, however, have a deficiency in thiamine 15and some of these people will go on to develop serious brain disorders such as Wernicke—Korsakoff syndrome WKS 16. Human Brain Schematic drawing of the human brain, showing regions vulnerable to alcoholism-related abnormalities.

Although these patients have problems remembering old information i. For example, these patients can discuss in detail an event in their lives, but an hour later might not remember ever having the conversation.

Treatment The cerebellum, an area of the brain responsible for coordinating movement and perhaps even some forms of learning, appears to be particularly sensitive to the effects of thiamine deficiency and is the region most frequently damaged in association with chronic alcohol consumption. Administering thiamine helps to improve brain function, especially in patients in the early stages of WKS. When damage to the brain is more severe, the course of care shifts from treatment to providing support to the patient and his or her family 18.

Custodial care may be necessary for the 25 percent of patients who have permanent brain damage and significant loss of cognitive skills 19. Scientists believe that a genetic variation could be one explanation for why only some alcoholics with thiamine deficiency go on to develop severe conditions such as WKS, but additional studies are necessary to clarify how genetic variants might cause some people to be a research on the effects of excessive drinking on people vulnerable to WKS than others.

But people may not be aware that prolonged liver dysfunction, such as liver cirrhosis resulting from excessive alcohol consumption, can harm the brain, leading to a serious and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy 20.

Hepatic encephalopathy can cause changes in sleep patterns, mood, and personality; psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression; severe cognitive effects such as shortened attention span; and problems with coordination such as a flapping or shaking of the hands called asterixis. In the most serious cases, patients may slip into a coma i. New imaging techniques have enabled researchers to study specific brain regions in patients with alcoholic liver disease, giving them a better understanding of how hepatic encephalopathy develops.

These studies have confirmed that at least two toxic substances, ammonia and manganese, have a role in the development of hepatic encephalopathy.

Treatment Physicians typically use the following strategies to prevent or treat the development of hepatic encephalopathy. Treatment that lowers blood ammonia concentrations, such as administering L—ornithine L—aspartate.

In initial studies, patients using these devices showed lower amounts of ammonia circulating in their blood, and their encephalopathy became less severe 21. Liver transplantation, an approach that is widely used in alcoholic cirrhotic patients with severe i. In general, implantation of a new liver results in significant improvements in cognitive function in these patients 22 and lowers their levels of ammonia and manganese 23.

Children with FAS may have distinct facial features see illustration.

The Effects of Alcohol on Your Body

FAS infants also are markedly smaller than average. Their brains may have less volume i. And they may have fewer numbers of brain cells i. Treatment Scientists are investigating the use of complex motor training and medications to prevent or reverse the alcohol—related brain damage found in people prenatally exposed to alcohol 24. These findings have important therapeutic implications, suggesting that complex rehabilitative motor training can improve motor performance of children, or even adults, with FAS.

Scientists also are looking at the possibility of developing medications that can help alleviate or prevent brain damage, such as that associated with FAS.

Digestive and endocrine glands

Studies using animals have yielded encouraging results for treatments using antioxidant therapy and vitamin E. Other preventive therapies showing promise in animal studies include 1—octanol, which ironically is an alcohol itself.

  1. Read on to learn the effects of alcohol on your body. In initial studies, patients using these devices showed lower amounts of ammonia circulating in their blood, and their encephalopathy became less severe 21.
  2. But people may not be aware that prolonged liver dysfunction, such as liver cirrhosis resulting from excessive alcohol consumption, can harm the brain, leading to a serious and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy 20.
  3. Many foods in the United States commonly are fortified with thiamine, including breads and cereals. It also increases your risk for chronic liver inflammation and liver disease.

Two molecules associated with normal development i. And a compound MK—801 that blocks a key brain chemical associated with alcohol withdrawal i. MK—801 reversed a specific learning impairment that resulted from early postnatal alcohol exposure 28. Though these compounds were effective in animals, the positive results cited here may or may not translate to humans. Not drinking during pregnancy is the best form of prevention; FAS remains the leading preventable birth defect in the United States today.

If brain damage occurred, then, the best way to treat it was by strengthening the existing neurons, as new ones could not be added. In the 1960s, however, researchers found that new neurons are indeed generated in adulthood—a process called a research on the effects of excessive drinking on people 29.

These new cells originate from stem cells, which are cells that can divide indefinitely, renew themselves, and give rise to a variety of cell types. The discovery of brain stem cells and adult neurogenesis provides a new way of approaching the problem of alcohol—related changes in the brain and may lead to a clearer understanding of how best to treat and cure alcoholism 30. For example, studies with animals show that high doses of alcohol lead to a disruption in the growth of new brain cells; scientists believe it may be this lack of new growth that results in the long—term deficits found in key areas of the brain such as hippocampal structure and function 31,32.

Understanding how alcohol interacts with brain stem cells and what happens to these cells in alcoholics is the first step in establishing whether the use of stem cell therapies is an option for treatment 33.

They experience different degrees of impairment, and the disease has different origins for different people.

  1. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology 10 3. It also increases your risk for chronic liver inflammation and liver disease.
  2. Human Brain Schematic drawing of the human brain, showing regions vulnerable to alcoholism-related abnormalities. Alcohol, memory blackouts, and the brain.
  3. If brain damage occurred, then, the best way to treat it was by strengthening the existing neurons, as new ones could not be added.
  4. Behavioral dysfunction and cognitive efficiency in male and female alcoholics. Though these compounds were effective in animals, the positive results cited here may or may not translate to humans.
  5. Buildup of these enzymes can lead to inflammation known as pancreatitis.

Consequently, researchers have not found conclusive evidence that any one variable is solely responsible for the brain deficits found in alcoholics. Characterizing what makes some alcoholics vulnerable to brain damage whereas others are not remains the subject of active research 34. The good news is that most alcoholics with cognitive impairment show at least some improvement in brain structure and functioning within a year of abstinence, though some people take much longer 35—37.

Clinicians must consider a variety of treatment methods to help people stop drinking and to recover from alcohol—related brain impairments, and tailor a research on the effects of excessive drinking on people treatments to the individual patient.

Advanced technology will have an important role in developing these therapies. Clinicians can use brain—imaging techniques to monitor the course and success of treatment, because imaging can reveal structural, functional, and biochemical changes in living patients over time. Long—term heavy drinking may lead to shrinking of the brain and deficiencies in the fibers white matter that carry information between brain cells gray matter. MRI and DTI are being used together to assess the brains of patients when they first stop chronic heavy drinking and again after long periods of sobriety, to monitor for possible relapse to drinking 38.

Memory formation and retrieval are highly influenced by factors such as attention and motivation 39. Studies using MRI are helping scientists to determine how memory and attention improve with long-time abstinence from alcohol, as well as what changes take place when a patient begins drinking again. The goal of these studies is to determine which alcohol—induced effects on the brain are permanent and which ones can be reversed with abstinence.

PET imaging is allowing researchers to visualize, in the living brain, the damage that results from heavy alcohol consumption 40. These studies have detected deficits in alcoholics, particularly in the frontal lobes, which are responsible for numerous functions associated with learning and memory, as well as in the cerebellum, which controls movement and coordination.

PET also is a promising tool for monitoring the effects of alcoholism treatment and abstinence on damaged portions of the brain and may help in developing new medications to correct the chemical deficits found in the brains of people with alcohol dependence. Small electrodes are placed on the scalp to detect this electrical activity, which then is magnified and graphed as brain waves i.

These brain waves show real—time activity as it happens in the brain. Many male alcoholics have a distinctive electrophysiological profile—that is, a low amplitude of their P3 components see figure.

P3 amplitudes in women alcoholics also are reduced, although to a lesser extent than in men. Then it was determined that while many of the clinical symptoms and electrophysiological measures associated with alcoholism return to normal after abstinence, the P3 amplitude abnormality persists 42.

The P3 component is reduced in alcoholics compared with control subjects. This continued deficit in long—term abstinent alcoholics suggests that P3 deficits may be a marker of risk for alcohol dependence, rather than a result of alcohol use. In fact, a number of studies have since reported low P3 amplitudes in young people who have not started drinking alcohol but who are at high risk for developing alcoholism, such as young sons of alcoholic fathers 43,44.

Markers such as the P3 can help identify people who may be at greatest risk for developing problems with alcohol. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Neuropsychology for Clinical Practice. American Psychological Press, 1996. Alcohol, memory blackouts, and the brain. Prevalence and correlates of alcohol—induced blackouts among college students: Results of an e—mail survey. Journal of American College Health 51: