There has been quite a lot of controversial information from the medical experts about what constitutes a healthy level of alcohol consumption. Some studies say that drinking in moderation is okay, and others reveal that alcohol in small amounts promotes health and wellness. But, more recently the evidence has begun to contradict many of the older studies.
Researchers at Brown University have discovered another reason that those who want to live past 100 well may want to forgo alcoholic beverages. The researchers discovered that alcohol, even in small amounts “hijacks” a memory pathway in the brain, altering the genes and causing cravings that can lead to addiction—according to a recent study published in an October 25th issue of the journal, Neuron.
When exposed to alcohol, even fruit flies develop cravings, because the signals that are involved in forming the avoidance and reward memories in flies, are much the same as they are in humans–so, flies make good study subjects in the lab.
In the study, the scientists examined fruit flies and they discovered that alcohol changed the proteins expressed in the nerve cells–impacting how memories are formed—on a molecular level.
Karla Kaun, senior author of the study paper, and assistant professor of neuroscience at Brown University, worked with a team of other researchers to crack the code on how the molecular signaling pathways and variations in gene expression are involved in maintaining reward memories.
Reward memories are part of the cycle of addiction. When a person consumes alcohol, or uses addictive drugs, the substance causes a shortcut in the reward system of the brain. This floods the brain with dopamine—a chemical that promotes feelings of wellbeing and euphoria. The hippocampus (an area of the brain involving the formation of memories) lays down memories of the quick sense of satisfaction—obtained using alcohol, or drugs. Next the brain forms a conditioned response.
“One of the things I want to understand is why drugs of abuse can produce really rewarding memories when they’re actually neurotoxins,” said Kaun, “All drugs of abuse — alcohol, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine — have adverse side effects. They make people nauseous or they give people hangovers, so why do we find them so rewarding? Why do we remember the good things about them and not the bad? My team is trying to understand on a molecular level what drugs of abuse are doing to memories and why they’re causing cravings.”
The goal of the research is to figure out which molecules change during the process of cravings. The scientists hope to be able to eventually decrease the length and intensity of cravings–which will potentially help recovering alcoholics and people with other addictions, explained Kaun.
Living past 100 well means taking strides to maintain optimal long-term health and wellness. But, with all the controversial information about alcohol consumption, it may be easy for people to become confused and start drinking every day, thinking it is part of a healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends the Mediterranean diet—which includes red wine. Many studies say drinking helps lower blood pressure and helps people manage stress levels. But, if you are 55 or older, and you are not a drinker, now is NOT the time to start. A daily workout will help immensely with stress, lowering blood pressure and promoting heart health–without the unwanted side effects that alcohol can cause, such as insomnia, a negative impact on cognitive function, and the potential for addiction.
The Journal, Neuron: