Wed Apr 17, 2002
By Melissa Schorr
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A few days of binge drinking can lead to the almost immediate death of brain cells, new research conducted in laboratory animals confirms.
"Very high alcohol consumption, even for a short period of time, damages the brain," study lead author Dr. Fulton T. Crews, professor of pharmacology and director of the center for alcohol studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Reuters Health.
Studies of alcoholics have found that heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to neurodegeneration, death of brain cells and reduced brain tissue mass, and subsequent damaging effects such as a lack of impulse control and difficulty in setting goals.
However, it has not been clear why the association between total alcohol consumed over a lifetime and brain damage was not stronger. Crews and colleagues hypothesized that it is short-term binges, where a person consumes 10 drinks in a day, rather than consistent heavy drinking, that may lead to brain damage.
"I believe it's not the total amount (consumed), it's related to the pattern of consumption," Crews said. "Binge drinking, where you reach high blood-alcohol levels, is when the damage occurs."
The researchers studied 200 lab rats, administering high amounts of alcohol daily for four days to the animals and giving a control group of animals an alcohol-free equivalent diet. The researchers analyzed the animals' brains after two days, four days and then three days after withdrawal, using a variety of microscopic methods.
The results were published in the April issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
The researchers reported that the animals forced onto an alcoholic binge experienced significant death of brain cells within two days, beginning with brain cells that control the sense of smell and going on to parts of the brain's cortex after four days. The type of cell death was determined to release inflammatory agents into the brain.
Crews said that previous researchers suggested that alcohol-induced brain damage occurs after alcohol has been consumed, during the period of recovery or withdrawal, when seizures may occur. However, Crews said he now suspects that much of the damage actually occurs during the intoxication period itself.
"We're seeing peak damage during intoxication," Crews said. "In only a few days, we can mimic what's seen in humans after a decade."
Crews said people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol most likely avoid this phenomenon. "If someone is a two-drinks-a-day drinker, I would not expect them to have any brain damage," he noted. However, "people promoting an individual who just turned 21 to have 21 drinks (should realize) that this might have permanent long-term damage.
"It might not just be a one-day celebration," he warned. "Once you've lost these brain cells, they're probably gone forever--how would you ever know?"
SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research 2002;26:547-557.