Science has long known that long-term alcohol abuse can cause permanent brain damage at the cellular level. However, a team of researchers from Spain and the UK have uncovered evidence that suggests the damage may go deeper. It is possible that problems can occur at the molecular level as well. If so, that might help explain some of the results of alcohol-induced brain damage not currently understood at the cellular level.

Decades of past research shows that excessive alcohol misuse can lead to reduced cognitive skills, reduced motor skills, and learning disabilities. Nevertheless, the damage has been attributed to an excessive loss of brain cells – something known as brain atrophy – in various regions of the brain. However, the relationship between the disorders and brain atrophy has not been clear. The research team from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Nottingham set out to establish that relationship.

Differences in Proteins

Researchers surmised that something at the molecular level had to be triggering cognitive impairment above and beyond cellular atrophy. They tested their theory by analysing 40 different post-mortem brains. Half the brains were taken from individuals diagnosed during their lifetimes as having alcohol dependency issues; the other half was ‘normal’ brains.

Researchers discovered that the brains of the first group showed a number of different proteins that had been altered. These proteins are responsible for both the architecture and shape of neurons within the brain. Because the proteins were altered, the neurons they were taken from were also altered.

The data led researchers to surmise that alcohol at least contributed to the alteration of the proteins and their related neurons, thus explaining the differences in cognitive functioning and behavioural control between alcohol abusers and those who do not drink excessively. Their next goal is to try to figure out exactly how alcohol can alter the proteins in question. Solving that problem could lead to new pharmaceutical treatments that might be able to reverse the damage done to the proteins and neurons.

Alcohol Not Harmless

From the perspective of the average UK consumer, the research should be a wake-up call to remind us that alcohol is not as harmless as we think. When used responsibly it poses very little harm. In fact, scientific studies have shown that alcohol consumption in moderation can actually be beneficial in certain conditions. However, alcohol addiction and abuse only leads to trouble.

We know that trouble all too well here in the UK. According to statistics from 2012:

  • 6% of adult males and 2% of adult females were problem drinkers
  • 20-30% of all accidents requiring hospital admission involved alcohol
  • 13-15% of teens between 15 and 16 years of age had been injured as a direct result of drinking alcohol
  • alcohol misuse was a related factor in 30% of suicides
  • there were more than 11,000 alcohol- related deaths in the UK. 

Little has changed in the UK since the 2012 statistics were compiled. You might even make the case that things have become slightly worse over the last 18 months. One thing is for sure: we need to take a long, hard look at alcohol and our attitudes regarding it.

If you suspect you may have an alcohol misuse or abuse problem, do not assume it is just a phase you will eventually outgrow. Misuse and abuse can become an addiction without you having any idea it is happening to you. Instead, reach out and get the professional help you need today. You do not want to become yet another statistic or headline news story.

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