Not Much Booze Can Bruise Your Brain

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  Last updated June 7, 2017 at 5:17 pm

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Excessive alcohol consumption has negative consequences on your health but knocking back even just a few drinks might also knock back memory and damage your brain too.

We are all familiar with the way drinking can make you forget but new research from the UK shows that even moderate drinking can rot your brain – particularly that part of your grey matter that helps you to remember.

A study published in the medical journal BMJ reports on 550 otherwise healthy men who were followed for 30 years. Their drinking habits were recorded and they were regularly tested for brain function as well as having MRI brain scans.

After adjusting for confounding factors including age, sex, education, social class, physical and social activity, smoking, stroke risk and medical history, the researchers found that higher alcohol consumption was associated with increased risk of damage to the part of the brain known as the hippocampus that affects memory and spatial navigation.

And, while they showed that even moderate alcohol consumption was associated with this brain damage, the more you drink, the more damage is being done. People consuming over 30 units of alcohol a week (roughly four or more standard drinks each day) were at the highest risk but even more moderate consumption of 14-21 units per week (between two and three standard drinks a day) were three times more likely to have a damaged hippocampus than abstainers.

Higher consumption was also found to be associated with poorer integrity of the white matter in the brain which is critical for efficient cognitive functioning as well as a faster decline in language abilities such as fluency – a measure of how many words beginning with a specific letter can be generated in one minute. Remarkably no association was found with word recall.

An editorial in the same journal suggests that it’s time to reconsider what ‘normal’ levels of drinking are and what damage that is doing to our health.



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About the Author

Paul Willis
Paul is a respected leader in the science community with an impressive career in science. He has a background in vertebrate palaeontology, studying the fossils of crocodiles and other reptiles. He also has a long history as a science communicator, with a career spanning as Director of The Royal Institution of Australia, presenter and host for Australia’s Science Channel, working for the ABC on TV programs such as Catalyst and Quantum as well as radio and online. He’s written books and articles on dinosaurs, fossils and rocks and is finding new ways to engage the people of Australia with the science that underpins their world. Follow him on Twitter @fossilcrox.

Published By

The Royal Institution of Australia is an independent charity, and the sister organisation of the prestigious Royal Institution of Great Britain, tasked with promoting public awareness and understanding of science.


The Royal Institution of Australia is passionate about building and connecting communities engaged with science, and as such works closely with scientific organisations, institutions, universities from Australia, and leaders to inspire the next generation of innovators and to create a lasting legacy for Australia.


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