A study of approximately 21,000 individuals reported that consuming 7 or more units of alcohol weekly is associated with higher levels of iron in the brain. Iron accumulation in the brain has been linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and is a possible mechanism for cognitive decline associated with alcohol consumption.
There is growing evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption can adversely affect brain health. The researchers examined links between alcohol consumption and iron levels in the brain.
The UK Biobank participants self-reported their alcohol consumption and their brains were scanned using MRI. About 7,000 also had their livers imaged using MRI to evaluate systemic iron levels. All participants performed a series of simple tests to evaluate motor and cognitive function.
The mean age of the participants was 55 years and 48.6% of them were female. Although 2.7% considered themselves non-drinkers, the average consumption was about 18 units per week, equivalent to about 6 large glasses of wine or 7½ cans of beer.
The researchers noted that alcohol consumption of more than 7 units per week was associated with higher iron markers in the basal ganglia, a group of brain regions linked to procedural learning, eye movements, emotion, cognition, motor control movements and more. Iron accumulation in some brain areas was linked to poorer cognitive function.
Although alcohol consumption was self-reported and could be underestimated, it was considered the only viable way to assess the consumption of such a large cohort.
The limitation of the study is that MRI measurements are indirect iron representations of the brain and can mix other brain changes found with alcohol consumption with changes in iron levels.
Given the prevalence of moderate alcohol consumption, even modest associations can have a significant impact on entire populations, and interventions to reduce alcohol consumption could benefit the general population.
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