October 14, 2008
Even Moderate Alcohol Seems To Shrink Brain

Using 1,839 subjects in the Framingham Offspring Study examined with functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) researchers find that even lower levels of alcohol drinking are associated with more rapid brain shrinkage with age.

Increasing alcohol intake was associated with loss in total brain volume greater than expected from age alone (P<0.001), reported Carol Ann Paul, of Wellesley College, and colleagues in the October issue of the Archives of Neurology.

In the cross-sectional study, women were affected more strongly than men by moderate alcohol intake averaging one to two drinks a day (eight to 14 per week).

Do you drink two drinks a day? If so, you are probably getting dumber faster than you need to.

The hope was that cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol consumption would keep the brain better fed with blood and slow brain aging. But that hope seems unrealistic now.

The cardiovascular benefits of low to moderate alcohol intake are thought to result from increasing blood flow rates, which would have been expected to benefit the brain also, Paul said.

But rather than preventing normal age-related volume reductions, the effects of moderate drinking were closer to those of heavy drinking, which has been linked to brain atrophy and cognitive decline, the researchers noted.

Your brain is shrinking anyway but alcohol makes it worse.

"Decline in brain volume -- estimated at 2 percent per decade -- is a natural part of aging," says Carol Ann Paul, who conducted the study when she was at the Boston University School of Public Health. She had hoped to find that alcohol might protect against such brain shrinkage.

"However, we did not find the protective effect," says Paul, who is now an instructor in the neuroscience program at Wellesley College. "In fact, any level of alcohol consumption resulted in a decline in brain volume."

Brain rejuvenation is going to be the hardest challenge in rejuvenation. Don't make it any worse by shrinking your brain any faster than unavoidable.

On the bright side, all the hours I spend every day searching for content for blog posts might be stimulating and exercising my brain. Web searching seems to stimulate the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of your brain. So is all that web surfing really just a prudent anti-aging therapy? Does brain exercise slow brain aging?

For the study, the UCLA team worked with 24 neurologically normal research volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76. Half of the study participants had experience searching the Internet, while the other half had no experience. Age, educational level and gender were similar between the two groups.

Study participants performed Web searches and book-reading tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which recorded the subtle brain-circuitry changes experienced during these activities. This type of scan tracks the intensity of cell responses in the brain by measuring the level of cerebral blood flow during cognitive tasks.

All study participants showed significant brain activity during the book-reading task, demonstrating use of the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, which are located in the temporal, parietal, occipital and other areas of the brain.

Internet searches revealed a major difference between the two groups. While all participants demonstrated the same brain activity that was seen during the book-reading task, the Web-savvy group also registered activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision-making and complex reasoning.

"Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading but only in those with prior Internet experience," said Small, who is also the director of UCLA's Memory and Aging Research Center.

In fact, researchers found that during Web searching, volunteers with prior experience registered a twofold increase in brain activation when compared with those with little Internet experience. The tiniest measurable unit of brain activity registered by the fMRI is called a voxel. Scientists discovered that during Internet searching, those with prior experience sparked 21,782 voxels, compared with only 8,646 voxels for those with less experience.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 October 14 11:20 PM  Brain Aging

Mthson said at October 15, 2008 2:27 AM:

It seems fair to say reading print media is a more passive experience than web reading/searching.

Jake said at October 15, 2008 7:24 AM:

Just as I thought. Reading the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek or Time will turn your brain to jelly.

cancer_man said at October 15, 2008 9:48 AM:


1) You left off a critical conclusion:

And the differences between brain volumes in drinkers and nondrinkers were quite small -- less than 1.5 percent between abstainers and heavy drinkers. "We're talking very small differences here," says Dr. Garbutt, who was not involved in the study. "We're not seeing 10 to 20 percent shrinkage."

2) These are 60 year olds being tested where the brain is already in a less maleable state than 20 to 50 year olds.

3) A 2004 study showed that even alcoholics (I think under age 50) return to a testing level no different from non drinkers after a period of absence. (I think 6 to 12 months were needed)

David Govett said at October 15, 2008 10:12 AM:

"Even Moderate Alcohol Seems To Shrink Brain"
In that case, I'll avoid moderate alcohol.

cancer_man said at October 15, 2008 10:26 AM:

Not only is this a study of 60 year olds, whose brains of heavy alcohol use shrunk the brain less than 1.5% (no number given for moderate drinking), but those who don't drink for a while get back to 100%.

A limited study, and Randall left off the most interesting scientific part - amount of shrinkage.

Fly said at October 15, 2008 10:30 AM:

At 56 the trade-off between a 30% reduction in overall death rate with daily wine use and a slightly smaller brain seems reasonable.

Kane said at October 15, 2008 11:17 AM:

I seem to recall reading a study recently that indicated brains return to their normal size after two weeks of alcohol abstention. Anyone else remember this? (I'm not sure, as it's only been two days since my last drink.)

black sea said at October 15, 2008 11:50 AM:

This would explain my career trajectory.

Randall Parker said at October 15, 2008 8:12 PM:

David Govett,

Lately I've been trying periodic immoderate doses about once every other week. It is so cheap at happy hour I gotta drink more to save. So I'm being economically wise this way too.


But I wonder whether everyone who drinks moderate alcohol enjoys a substantially lower risk of, say, heart attack from consuming moderate alcohol? If we can predict from blood lipids and other tests who has a very low cardiac risk in the first place then we can know whether alcohol stands much chance of helping to lower risks.

My guess is that if your blood lipids look good, you eat an excellent diet, and exercise the potential gain from alcohol consumption might be small or non-existent.

Randall Parker said at October 15, 2008 8:16 PM:


As we grow older our ability to snap back from traumas declines. I would expect restoration of brain volume to happen more slowly and less completely with higher age.


Another point: I'm more worried personally about brain aging than heart disease. I figure brain cell loss can't be restored in the same that muscle cell loss can be restored. Your brain carries your identity.

Lou Pagnucco said at October 16, 2008 7:10 AM:

This study seems to conflict with quite a few others which show better cognitive function in older moderate drinkers.

For example:

Effects of Moderate Alcohol Consumption on Cognitive Function in Women
- New England Journal of Medicine, Jan 20, 2005
"Among moderate drinkers, as compared with nondrinkers, the relative risk of impairment was 0.77 on our test of general cognition (95 percent confidence interval, 0.67 to 0.88) and 0.81 on the basis of a global cognitive score combining the results of all tests (95 percent confidence interval, 0.70 to 0.93). The results for cognitive decline were similar; for example, on our test of general cognition, the relative risk of a substantial decline in performance over a two-year period was 0.85 (95 percent confidence interval, 0.74 to 0.98) among moderate drinkers, as compared with nondrinkers. There were no significant associations between higher levels of drinking (15.0 to 30.0 g per day) and the risk of cognitive impairment or decline. There were no significant differences in risks according to the beverage (e.g., wine or beer) and no interaction with the apolipoprotein E genotype."

Alcohol Drinking and Cognitive Functions: Findings from the Cardiovascular Risk Factors Aging and Dementia (CAIDE) Study
- Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, Vol. 23, No.3, 2007
" Results: The participants who did not drink alcohol at midlife had a poorer performance in episodic memory, psychomotor speed, and executive function in late life as compared with infrequent and frequent drinkers, adjusted for sociodemographic and vascular factors. Also late-life nondrinkers had poorer psychomotor speed and executive function. These findings were evident especially among nonsmokers. Further, no interactions between apolipoprotein E4 and alcohol or sex and alcohol were found. Conclusions: Alcohol drinking both at midlife and later is favorably related to the function in several cognitive domains, including episodic memory, psychomotor speed, and executive function, in late life. "

Kane said at October 16, 2008 7:14 AM:


Interesting. Maybe alcohol doesn't shrink the brain so much as it makes it more compact and efficient.

Jason said at October 16, 2008 10:52 AM:

I love all of these studies that "associate" things. When medical research adopt the same standards of rigor as a Rorschach test?

Randall Parker said at October 17, 2008 6:02 PM:


Why are associational studies done? Because definitive studies are either too expensive or impossible to do.

Take associational studies with a grain of salt. But do not simply ignore or dismiss them.

Dennis Mangan said at October 21, 2008 6:45 AM:

Drinkers have higher SES, and non-drinkers include many people who can't due to prior health problems or alcoholism, so correlations that show drinking alcohol to be healthy are suspect.

Faruq Arshad said at October 21, 2008 11:46 AM:

How come very high IQ men can achive a lot,despite drinking alcohol, I'm thinking along the lines of Chruchill,Benjamin Franklin etc etc,wheeras if I even drink a few beers I have difficulty remembering telephone numbers the next day?

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