Exercise May Shield Brain From Effects Of Alcohol
April 17, 2013

Aerobic Exercise May Protect Brain From Dangers Of Heavy Alcohol Use

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A recent study from researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder shows that aerobic exercise may help to curb the negative effects that heavy drinking can have on the brain.

"Engaging in regular aerobic exercise has been found to improve learning, memory, and self-control," said co-author Hollis C. Karoly, a graduate student at the university. "This seems to be particularly true among older adults who exercise regularly, which suggests that exercise may prevent a natural loss in cognitive functions that occurs as people age. Additionally, exercise has been shown to protect white matter in the brain from damage associated with aging and various diseases."

According to Karoly, her team began looking into the potential benefits of aerobic exercise because heavy long-term alcohol consumption often results in neural damage that resembles what happens to the brains of aging people.

"Given that exercise is protective against some of the neural and cognitive effects of aging, it seemed likely that aerobic exercise may also work to reverse or prevent some of the damage to the brain caused by chronic alcohol consumption,” she said.

A report on the research was recently published in journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. For the study, the scientists recruited 60 heavy-to-moderate drinkers, including 37 men and 23 women. The participants performed a written test known as the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) which is designed to assess dangerous drinking behaviors. The volunteers also self-reported their efforts to control their drinking as well as the amount of exercise they were getting.

The test subjects were drawn from a larger pool of volunteers who had agreed to be involved in a study on nicotine and alcohol use. They had previously undergone a brain scan that allowed the researchers in the CU-Boulder study to see the orientation of the axons, or nerve fibers, in the brain´s white matter.

The researchers found a significant connection among heavy drinking, exercise and white matter health.

"For individuals with low levels of aerobic exercise, heavy drinking was linked to poorer white matter health, but for those with greater exercise involvement, the relationship between alcohol and white matter health was not as strong," said Susan F. Tapert, a professor of psychiatry at University of California who collaborated on the study.

"Although we don't know yet if the exercise is protecting against alcohol-related damage, or if it is a sign of factors linked to brain health, this is a very compelling study.”

“This suggests that individuals who have experienced alcohol-related brain problems could possibly use exercise to help recover those effects; studying people over time will tell us if this is in fact the case,” Tapert added.

Karoly emphasized that the study did not find a direct cause-and-effect relationship between exercise and the mitigation of brain damage caused by heavy drinking.

"This is an exploratory study and it is not our intention to suggest a person can erase the physiological damage of years of heavy drinking by exercising," she said. "Some of the specific mechanisms in the brain linked to heavy drinking and exercise are not well understood, and we hope our study will inspire future research on the subject."