Your brain at wine o’clock

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

“New frontier” of research explores how low doses of alcohol affect grey matter

Jennifer Allford
The Province

Whether it’s Cabernet or Chardonnay, old world or new, millions of us like to toast the end of the working day by opening a bottle of wine. You pour a glass, take a sip or two and feel almost instantly relaxed. Yes, we do love our wine o’clock. Meanwhile in your brain, those first few sips of wine are spreading like wildfire.

“Alcohol doesn’t have a problem getting into the brain,” says Nicholas Gilpin, a researcher at Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans. “It permeates all regions of the brain, and within regions of the brain it permeates all aspects of that region — so, all cells.”

Having a couple of glasses of wine (or cold beer or shot of tequila — the brain doesn’t differentiate the type of alcohol) affects the whole shooting match: Your cortex, which controls executive function, cerebellum, which is responsible for motor function and your thalamus, which makes sense of all the information that pours in through your senses.

Other drugs, either by accident or design, can target, sniper-like, a particular effect in the brain. But booze works more like buckshot. “Alcohol is a really, really dirty drug,” says Gilpin, PhD and associate professor of physiology and associate director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Center of Excellence at LSU. “It has very widespread effects on our central nervous system, our brains, but it’s never really been understood what’s chicken and what’s egg, or what’s the first domino to fall.”

We know that alcohol affects our neurons, the cells in our brains that talk to each other to get pretty much anything and everything done. Even just a sip or two can interrupt that communication.

A “new frontier” of research is exploring how low doses of alcohol may affect other cells in the brain — astrocytes that help neurons communicate as well as regulate blood flow to the brain and microglia, cells that are responsible for immune responses, fighting off invaders and getting rid of inflammation.

“What’s really intriguing to me is whether there’s some predictive value of the way low doses of alcohol affect the brain of different people and whether they’re susceptible to developing a (drinking) problem later,” Gilpin says. “That’s something that I would say is completely unknown.”

But we do know that our brains sort of have our back when it comes to getting too I-luv-ya-man-drunk. “A lot of times people report being stimulated by their first sips of their first drink, you kind of feel energized, whereas on the third or fourth it has maybe more sedative effects,” Gilpin says. “That’s actually adaptive. It’s your body shutting you down so you don’t have a 12th or 15th drink and go into a coma.”

While there are fewer cute sayings on fridge magnets for that level of drinking, there is plenty of evidence that chronic alcoholism is very, very bad for your brain. Researchers are still figuring out the exact how and why, but they have determined that chronic alcoholism is one of the leading causes of dementia.

After years of heavy drinking your neurons may throw in the towel and stop working properly and your brain tissue may start to atrophy. “All corners of your brain are working hard to maintain normalcy in the presence of high alcohol doses, which has widespread negative effects that can include cell death,” Gilpin says.

As for “low-risk alcohol drinking,” there are some handy guidelines. In Canada, they suggest women should keep it to 10 drinks a week with no more than two drinks a day, most days. Men should have no more than 15 drinks a week with no more than three drinks a day, most days. Regardless of your gender, you should “plan non-drinking days every week to avoid developing a habit.”

As wine o’clock hits — it’s got to be 5 p.m. or noon somewhere — and you pour yourself that glass of wine, sit back and enjoy the little buzz, maybe give a toast to the researchers who are trying to understand what that first sip, and all the ones that come after, are doing to your brain.

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