Binge-drinking, brain damage, and potential reversal by exercise

In rats, though. But still very interesting.

So says yesterday's New York Times Op-Ed by psychiatrist, Paul Steinberg, entitled, "The Hangover That Lasts." This timely piece follows our discussion on Friday about champagne choices for New Year's Eve, the premier event for binge-drinking.

While I'm not a neuropharmacologist, Steinberg's article piqued my interest because it focuses on the work of Dr Fulton T Crews and his former student Dr Jennifer Obernier (now with the National Academy of Sciences) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr Crews is director of the UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies and was recently given the Distinguished Researcher Award by the Research Society on Alcoholism. Also notable is the fact that Dr Crews was your humble blogger's neuropharmacology professor many moons ago, back when the only neurotransmitters were biogenic amines and acetylcholine.

While I don't have the published references here, the crux of Steinberg's discussion of Crews' work is that binge-drinking in rats can cause long-lasting damage to the hippocampus, the brain region importance for learning and cognition. Most striking is that the damage persists long after alcohol abstinence and this effect appears to result from continued inflammation in the brain. Here's Steinberg's description of the animal model and the results:

When put into a tub of water and forced to continue swimming until they find a platform on which to stand, the sober former binge-drinking rats and the normal control rats (who had never been exposed to alcohol) learned how to find the platform equally well. But when the experimenters abruptly moved the platform, the two groups of rats had remarkably different performances. The rats without previous exposure to alcohol, after some brief circling, were able to find the new location. The former binge-drinking rats, however, were unable to find the new platform; they became confused and kept circling the site of the old platform.

This circling occurs, Dr. Crews says, because the former binge-drinking rats continued to show neurotoxicity in the hippocampus long after (in rat years) becoming sober. On a microscopic level, Dr. Crews has shown that heavy binge-drinking in rats diminishes the genesis of nerve cells, shrinks the development of the branchlike connections between brain cells and contributes to neuronal cell death. The binges activate an inflammatory response in rat brains rather than a pure regrowth of normal neuronal cells. Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.

Of greater concern and relevance to humans is that the collective work of Crews reveals that the adolescent rat brain is far more sensitive to these neurotoxic effects of alcohol than that of adults.

Finally, the only way Crews and colleagues have found to reverse or minimize this inflammation-related damage is exercise. For my neuroscience colleagues more interested in the complete original works of the Crews laboratory, click here.

So, while making New Year's resolutions while binge-drinking tomorrow night, consider a rigorous exercise program, for both your body and your mind.


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Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.

This sounds like a good explanation for much of the behavior of GW Bush.

Is it now certain that acetaldehyde is active neurotoxin? Since activities of alcohol and aldehyde dehygrogenases vary considerably between species and even between individuals, this would be important to know. If acetaldeyde is the culprit, then Antabuse, by promoting accumulation of this toxic intermediate, might promote brain damage.

Perhaps exercise works by increasing disposal of acetate by mitochondrial oxidation and driving the equilibrium in that direction.

By metabopharm (not verified) on 30 Dec 2007 #permalink

C'mon now! Both wheel running groups were above control in the markers for neurogenesis. traumatic brain injury, for one example, also increases markers for neurogenesis. as does learning for that matter. point being this is a blunt measure.

to suggest that New Year's binge drinking is okay if you just go for a run before hand........