Alcohol Dependence Linked to Obesity, Poor Brain Health

Alcohol Dependence Linked to Obesity, Poor Brain Health

Alcohol abuse and addiction can increase risk of obesity due to a rise in body mass index (BMI), according to previous research. Now, a new study has found that excessive alcohol use not only heightens BMI, but this increase is also linked to lower levels of brain function as a result of this joint action.

Even light drinking is associated with high BMI and decreased brain volumes, lower levels of important metabolite compounds in the brain, and lower glucose activity in the frontal lobe—an area that can experience deterioration due to alcohol dependence. Researchers from the Northern California Institute for Research and Education in San Francisco, University of California, San Francisco, and University of California, San Diego investigated whether the BMI of alcohol-dependent adults independently affected their regional measure of brain structure, metabolite concentrations, and neocortical blood flow. The researchers’ findings show that alcohol-related brain injuries in alcoholics may be caused by the deadly combination of excessive drinking, elevated BMI, and chronic cigarette smoking.

Because ethanol contains almost as many calories as fat, it is the main contributor to abdominal obesity in drinkers who drink 2–3 drinks per day. Unlike other areas of the body that are affected by excess weight, abdominal obesity can lead to greater health risks, including risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even dementia. Neurologically, high BMI in overweight and obese non-alcoholic individuals has been related to brain injury due to lowered concentrations of brain metabolites. Similarly, the researchers sought to determine whether alcoholics are at the same risk of brain injury due to their increased BMI in the overweight or obese range since heavy alcohol consumption is the main source of their excess weight. Because obesity among the U.S. population has progressively been rising in the past few years, the link between brain injury among alcoholics and non-alcoholics was significant to the researchers’ investigation.

In their study, lead researcher Dieter Meyerhoff, lead author Stefan Gazdzinski, and associate Susan Tapert retrospectively examined data on 54 alcohol-dependent men who has undergone treatment for their alcohol use to analyze the effects of alcohol dependence on their neurobiology. At the time of their study, the participants had been abstinent from alcohol for one month following their treatment and had BMI between 20–37 kg/m2. The participants’ BMI, brain volume, metabolic concentrations, and blood flow were measured through structural and perfusion MRI as well as from a proton magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging scanner.

Researchers controlled such factors as the participants’ age, smoking status, and level of alcohol consumption during the study. As a result, higher BMI was related to lower levels of metabolite concentrations and blood flow in the frontal lobe. While it has generally been believed that alcohol abuse is the sole cause of poor brain health, the researchers found that high BMI is also associated with brain injury in alcoholics. Because alcoholics tend to increase their BMI due to their high drinking intake, they are at risk of obesity and adverse effects on the brain. Conclusively, the metabolic changes that occur as a result of their drinking may be the root of the alcoholics’ brain injuries. Furthermore, brain injury was exacerbated by chronic smoking in these alcoholics, in comparison to the non-smoking alcoholics.

The researchers explain that the occurrence of brain injury in the study’s population is complex. They suggest that the alcoholic men may have poor brain functioning due to their excessive drinking, which made decision-making more challenging when it came to consuming alcohol and food. In turn, obesity caused by their heavy drinking could have led to brain injury in these men, making the process a very cyclical action. In either case, better self-care is needed to help individuals suffering from alcoholism and obesity, including alcohol treatment, weight loss management, improved diet, and exercise in order to recover their general brain health.

Professor Gazdzinski is now a researcher at Jagiellonian University in Poland, Dr. Tapert is a professor of psychiatry at UCSD and director of Substance Abuse/Mental Illness in the VA San Diego Healthcare System, and Dr. Meyerhoff is a professor of radiology at UCSF and San Francisco Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center. Their new study will be available in the December 2010 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and is currently published online.

Source: Medical News Today, Link Between Excessive Drinking, Poor Brain Health, Obesity, September 9, 2010

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