WEDNESDAY, April 17 (HealthDay News) -- New research raises the
possibility that exercise may protect the brains of heavy drinkers
from the damage of alcohol.
The research is preliminary, however, and has limitations. The
number of heavy drinkers in the study was small, at just nine.
Also, it's not possible to know which came first: brain damage from
alcohol use or protection to the brain from exercise.
Still, "aerobic exercise could be a beneficial recommendation
for individuals with a history of heavy alcohol use," said study
author Hollis Karoly, a graduate student at the University of
Colorado at Boulder. "This study represents an interesting first
step in this line of research. Overall, we hope that this study
inspires future research into the relationship between alcohol,
exercise and the brain."
Scientists are intrigued by how both alcohol and exercise affect
the workings of the brain. Alcohol "can remodel brain chemistry and
brain structure. It can lead to neuron cell death, and alcoholism
can lead to dementia," said Dr. J.C. Garbutt, a psychiatry
professor who studies alcohol use at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Exercise has been shown to lead to
enhancement of connections in the brain and may help by lowering
blood pressure and changing body metabolic factors such as high
fats and high blood sugar, which can negatively affect the
In the new study, the Colorado researchers studied brain scans
of 37 men and 23 women, aged 21 to 55, from the Albuquerque, N.M.,
area who answered questions about alcohol use, smoking and
exercise. Thirty-nine were white.
Nine appeared to be what the study defined as problem
Those who drank but didn't exercise had lower levels of
so-called "white matter" in the brain. However, Karoly said, "we
found that among high exercisers, the relationship between alcohol
use and white matter damage was not significant."
White matter is important for relaying messages across the
brain, Karoly said, "so damage to white matter could have a whole
host of negative implications as far as cognitive processes such as
memory, attention and self-regulation." The subjects didn't take
tests to assess any of those mental abilities, however.
The people in the study who appeared to exercise the most
reported that they got two or more hours of exercise per week. But
it's not clear what kind of exercise they got or how accurate their
recollections about exercise were.
Oddly, the participants in the study who exercised the most also
drank the most -- nearly 1.75 drinks a day, on average. Those who
exercised the least drank an average of less than 1.4 drinks a
Although the study showed an association between exercise and
brain health, it did not prove a cause-and-effect link.
Garbutt said it's difficult to find definitive conclusions in
the research. "I would view this as a very early, preliminary study
that may highlight some areas for future research but doesn't
provide much in the way of a solid finding to communicate to the
public," he said.
Garbutt cautioned that anyone who drinks heavily or suffers from
alcoholism "should get a good medical evaluation before undertaking
aerobic exercise. Alcohol can affect heart rhythms, bone strength
and the liver and pancreas, and one shouldn't start major exercise
without knowing if there are risks such as heart problems."
But if a physician says it's OK, "exercise is good and might
even help the brain," he said.
The study was published online April 16 and will appear in the
September issue of the journal
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
For more about
alcoholism, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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