Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

by David J. Hanson, Ph. D.

The idea that alcohol kills brain cells has long been promoted. The early temperance writers made this assertion and also insisted that the alcohol in their blood could cause “drunkards” to catch fire and burn alive. 1 This combustion argument against drinking was dropped long ago but many anti-alcohol writers continue to promote the idea that even moderate drinking causes brain cells to die.

Scientific medical research has actually demonstrated that the moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills and memory than is abstaining from alcohol. Moderate drinking doesn’t kill brain cells but helps the brain function better into old age. Studies around the world involving many thousands of people report this finding. 2

Of course, years of alcohol abuse can cause serious neurological damage, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Harm can be done to message-carrying dendrites on neurons in the cerebellum, a part of the brain involved in learning and physical coordination. But even in such extreme cases, there’s a lack of evidence that alcohol kills brain cells. 3

However, abstinence after chronic alcohol abuse enables brains to repair themselves, according to new research involving rats. 4

During simulated alcohol “binges,” rats’ ability to create new brain cells was reduced. But after the animals no longer consumed alcohol they had a “huge burst” in new brain cell development. The study is the first to demonstrate that brain cell production can return after abstinence from alcohol abuse.

People who drink too much and are thinking about either reducing or eliminating their drinking should find these findings encouraging, although humans have not yet been tested directly for the positive brain effects.

 

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