Just a Drink a Day Can Damage the Brain


Plus: The role of mindfulness in curbing opioid use disorder, and a connection between vaping and prediabetes

By William Wagner

It’s well established that heavy alcohol consumption damages the brain, but what about light drinking? A new study led by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania indicates that even a pint of beer or glass of wine a day might adversely affect the brain’s structure.

We also turn our attention to promising findings on how mindfulness can reduce opioid misuse, and vaping as a contributor to diabetes.

From Nature Communications:
New Findings on Alcohol and the Brain

Turns out drinking might be harmful even if you don’t have alcohol use disorder (AUD). According to a new study in Nature Communications, light and moderate alcohol use—say, a drink a day—also causes the brain to age prematurely.

The study upends previous notions about drinking. “These findings contrast with scientific and governmental guidelines on safe drinking limits,” said Henry Kranzler, MD, director of Penn’s Center for Studies of Addiction and one of the study’s authors. “For example, although the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women consume an average of no more than one drink per day, recommended limits for men are twice that, an amount that exceeds the consumption level associated in the study with decreased brain volume.”

The sheer scope of the study adds to its credibility. The researchers analyzed brain imaging data from over 36,000 adults in the UK Biobank, which, according to the study, “is the largest available collection of high-quality MRI brain scans, alcohol-related behavioral phenotypes, and measurements of the socioeconomic environment.” They then created a model that measures alcohol-related changes in the volume of white and gray matter in the brain. “The large general population sample provided sufficient sensitivity to qualitatively and quantitatively assess how associations vary across the drinking spectrum and test at which threshold associations emerge,” the authors write.

From JAMA Internal Medicine:
The Benefits of Mindfulness in Overcoming OUD

Those who still believe mindfulness is New Age hooey should peruse the findings of a clinical trial led by scientists from the University of Utah. Results from the eight-week trial—the largest ever of its kind, comprising 250 adults—suggest that mindfulness-oriented recovery enhancement (MORE) can reduce the chances of opioid misuse among people with both chronic pain and opioid use disorder (OUD).

“Successful treatment of opioid misuse among people with chronic pain has proven elusive.”

—study in JAMA Internal Medicine

“MORE demonstrated one of the most powerful treatment effects I’ve seen,” said Eric Garland, PhD, lead author of the study and director of the Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development at the University of Utah. “There’s nothing else out there that works this well in alleviating pain and curbing opioid misuse.”

As the creator of MORE, Garland might be slightly biased. Regardless, the importance of such studies is obvious: “Successful treatment of opioid misuse among people with chronic pain has proven elusive,” the authors write.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that one in three U.S. adults have prediabetes, or borderline diabetes. A contributing factor is vaping, say researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

“Our study demonstrated a clear association of prediabetes risk with the use of e-cigarettes,” said the study’s lead investigator, Shyam Biswal, PhD. “With both e-cigarette use and [the] prevalence of prediabetes dramatically on the rise in the past decade, our discovery that e-cigarettes carry a similar risk to traditional cigarettes with respect to diabetes is important for understanding and treating vulnerable individuals.”

The Johns Hopkins team examined data from about 600,000 individuals in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) from 2016 to 2018. People who used e-cigarettes were 9% more likely to have prediabetes than those who didn’t vape. The good news is that prediabetes is reversible with the right health choices. “Our effort for smoking cessation has led to a decrease in smoking traditional cigarettes,” Biswal said. “With this information [from the study], it is time for us to ramp up our public health efforts to promote the cessation of e-cigarettes.”

Photo: Vinicius Amano