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One Side Effect Alcohol Has on Brain Health, New Study Says

New research has discovered that the brain plays a role similar in processing alcohol as the liver.
MEDICALLY REVIEWED Clipboard BY Howard Grossman

In a season with non-stop announcements about new alcoholic drinks to try, a new study has made an important discovery on how drinking can affect our brains. This understanding casts the function of the brain in a new light when it comes to processing alcohol, and may lead to more modern methods for treating people who have alcohol dependence.

For the study, which was just published in the journal Nature Metabolism, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine partnered with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to examine how the brain plays into metabolizing alcohol.

Of course, it's well-known that the liver is considered the key organ in the body's ability to process alcohol. The liver breaks alcohol down into compounds, creating one called acetaldehyde, which has been known to produce the impaired speech, motor skills, and reasoning an individual exhibits when considered "drunk." Acetaldehyde then turns into acetate, which the researchers refer to as a "benign substance" that wasn't previously thought to be much of a factor in creating these sedative effects.

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Using MRI scans for both humans and mice, the researchers discovered ALDH2, an enzyme that converts acetaldehyde into acetate within the brain. It showed up in the cerebellum (which controls balance and coordination), as well as the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—all areas of the brain that play a role in decision-making and regulating emotions. When the ALDH2 enzyme was singularly removed, the researchers stated that the "the mice were resistant to motor impairment inducted by alcohol consumption."

Eat This, Not That! Medical Expert Board member Howard Grossman, M.D. helps us understand the significance of the findings. "It seems important because it has long been felt that the metabolites of alcohol from the liver were what cause the effects of alcohol," Grossman says. "But now they find that alcohol actually works directly on certain areas of the brain that control things like awareness, coordination and impulse control," and that "the metabolite acetate, felt to be benign previously, may also act differently in the brain."

Grossman explains the takeaway: "If the same phenomenon exists in humans as in mice, it gives the hope of finding a way to block the effects of alcohol—both the ones we enjoy and the ones that lead to dependence. If you could keep people from feeling anything from alcohol, it might seriously impact one of the pathways to dependence and addiction."

If you're looking out for your liver health, check out the 5 Popular Foods That Cause Damage to Your Liver, and sign up for the Eat This, Not That! newsletter for healthy eating and drinking news delivered to your inbox daily.

Krissy Gasbarre
Krissy is a senior news editor at Eat This, Not That!, managing morning and weekend news related to nutrition, wellness, restaurants and groceries (with a focus on beverages), and more. Read more about Krissy