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Oh, Lisa, you and your stories. "Bart is a vampire." "Beer kills brain cells." Now let's go back to that...building...thingy, where our beds and TV...is. -The Simpsons

It isn't just Lisa Simpson, though, that claim that excessive and/or long-term alcohol use can kill brain cells. The usual suspects, like Yahoo Answers and Answers.com seem to think so. Others claim that it doesn't, such as articles in The Atlantic and in The Atlantic Wire.

Unfortunately, none of these cited a primary source. So, will prolonged and/or excessive alcohol consumption kill off brain cells?

  • Are you referring to salutary usage or chronic addiction? – Sklivvz Oct 15 '11 at 13:35
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Yes, excessive alcohol is neurotoxic.

This has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt; there is a substantial body of research in the field going back for quite some time. Evidence for this comes from a wide range of animal based research (for examples, see Crews FT, Nixon K (2009) Mechanisms of neurodegeneration and regeneration in alcoholism. Alcohol and Alcoholism 44:115. & Obernier JA, Bouldin TW, Crews FT (2002) Binge Ethanol Exposure in Adult Rats Causes Necrotic Cell Death. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 26:547-557.) as well as clinical studies in human populations (eg: Harper C (2007) The neurotoxicity of alcohol. Human & Experimental Toxicology 26:251.).

However, there is also some evidence that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption may have neuroprotective effects: see Ruitenberg A, van Swieten JC, Witteman J, Mehta KM, van Duijn CM, Hofman A, Breteler M (2002) Alcohol consumption and risk of dementia: the Rotterdam Study. The Lancet 359:281-286.

There is still considerable dispute within the research community about the exact mechanisms of alcohol-induced neurotoxicity. Likely candidates include oxidative stress, inflammation-related cerebral overpressure and glutamatergic excitotoxicity. See Crews FT, Collins MA, Dlugos C, Littleton J, Wilkins L, Neafsey EJ, Pentney R, Snell LD, Tabakoff B, Zou J (2004) Alcohol-induced neurodegeneration: when, where and why? Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 28:350-364. for an overview of these possibilities.

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    I was hoping for a different answer :P – user717572 May 24 '12 at 16:20
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    While excessive alcohol is neurotoxic, it doesn't imply that "beer kills brain cells" as such. The cited studies of neurotoxicity assume blood alcohol levels that are significantly different from the "common usage of beer" - it would take me 12-20 (!) bottles of light beer in a single evening to reach the BAC used in those studies, while the common usage patterns of consuming alcohol (according to surveys) average out at 4-5 drinks per week, not even close to the proved neurotoxic levels. – Peteris Jul 13 '14 at 13:54
  • @Peteris I drank about 6 non-light beers (5% alcohol) yesterday eve, counting shots, but didn't keep them all in. – Cees Timmerman Jul 13 '14 at 22:48
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    @CeesTimmerman my point is that "Binge drinking does X" and "Beer does X" are very different statements with only partial overlap. – Peteris Jul 15 '14 at 2:33
  • I only had 2 shots, so most of that binge was beer. – Cees Timmerman Jul 15 '14 at 6:38
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The adverse effects of chronic alcohol (ethanol) use have been documented by numerous studies. The consumption of four or more alcoholic drinks daily exceeds "moderate" use and, over the long term, is associated with disorders including pancreatitis, Vitamin B12 deficiency, liver cirrhosis, peripheral neuropathy, and alcoholic encephalopathy. The damage to the brain is normally specific to the frontal lobe. Symptoms include impulsivity, disinhibition, and memory deficits that are most pronounced in a person's ability to recall recently introduced information, verbal and visual. The damage may spread to the temporal lobe and lead to difficulties with expressive language and even psychotic symptoms (Korsakoff's Psychosis.

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