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The Link Between Alcohol and Alzheimer’s Risk

Throughout the research, it is well-understood that excessive alcohol consumption has a negative effect on the brain. It is also suggested that alcohol may heighten one’s risk of Alzheimer’s later in life. Although this association is clear, the exact mechanics behind this relationship were unknown — until now.

Study Finds the Impact Alcohol May Have on Alzheimer’s Risk

Being a heavy drinker may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s, but until recently, why that is has remained unclear. The previous research highlighted the potential impact of inflammation in relation to genetics. However, these genes had not yet been identified.

Recently, researchers from the University of Chicago took a closer look at the pathways that sustain damage due to heavy alcohol consumption. They found that alcohol prevents the brain from effectively clearing amyloid-beta. In turn, this protein begins to clump together, forming hallmark plaques. Their findings were published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation.

To study the role that alcohol plays in relation to gene expression, the researchers used microglial cells from rats. These immune cells are found in both the spinal cord and the brain. Since they are responsible for consuming amyloid-beta through a process known as phagocytosis, they were of particular interest.

Their goal was to identify which genes are affected by increased inflammation, as well as alcohol exposure. To do so, they either exposed these microglial cells to alcohol, to proinflammatory cytokines (which increase an inflammatory response, or to both alcohol and proinflammatory cytokines. Each exposure lasted 24 hours.

Alcohol contributes to the accumulation of amyloid-beta

When exposed to alcohol only, 312 genes displayed altered expression. The introduction of cytokines also altered gene expression, which was expected. When exposing the microglia to alcohol levels similar to those seen in humans who binge drink, the cells’ ability to clear amyloid-beta was reduced by approximately 15 percent. These effects were seen after just one hour of exposure.

It was concluded that alcohol alters microglial gene expression and in turn, may impact phagocytosis. In this case, an inability to properly ingest amyloid-beta. Since plaques play a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s, reduced uptake of amyloid-beta due to alcohol exposure is now a key area of interest.

Although alcohol exposure may not cause Alzheimer’s, it is believed to prime the brain for the development of this neurodegenerative disease. Moving forward, the team would like to explore the effects of alcohol in a transgenic mouse model. They would also like to evaluate the potential effects following chronic exposure. They are particularly interested in how periods of withdrawal impact microglial gene expression and phagocytosis.

A Closer Look at Korsakoff Syndrome

The most well-known form of alcohol-related brain damage, Korsakoff syndrome is a chronic memory condition that is caused by a significant thiamine deficiency. Although other conditions can lead to Korsakoff syndrome, alcohol misuse is the most common cause.

Typically preceded by an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, an acute brain reaction that results in life-threatening brain disruption, the chronic condition is sometimes referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, Korsakoff can also be caused by AIDS, a chronic infection, anorexia, kidney dialysis, or cancer.

The major symptoms of this condition include:

  • A lack of insight

  • Confabulation (invented memories that the patient believes to be real)

  • Fixation amnesia (immediate memory loss)

  • Apathy (a loss of interest, concern, or enthusiasm)

  • Anterograde amnesia (memory loss that occurs after onset)

  • Retrograde amnesia (loss of memory regarding events that occurred before onset)

Although research is limited, data suggests that approximately 25 percent of those who develop Korsakoff syndrome (with or without a prior episode of Wernicke encephalopathy) will eventually recover. In addition, approximately 50 percent improve but do not fully recover, and the remaining 25 percent do not experience any changes in symptoms.

Addressing Your Current Level of Cognitive Thinking

If you are experiencing signs of memory loss, the BrainTest® app can help you better assess any potential cognitive impairments. By providing you with a baseline report, this scientifically-validated tool will allow you to track key changes across time. Your results can also be discussed with your doctor so that you can determine why a potential impairment was detected.

If you believe that you are suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia, it is critical that you address your concerns as soon as possible. If you would like to better assess your current level of cognitive thinking, download the app and take your first test for free today.

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