Exercise provides protection of cognitive and motor skills
Chronic alcohol abuse is associated to various harmful brain and nervous system outcomes including loss and damage to white mater (WM), and impairment of cognitive and motor functions. Aerobic exercise has been shown to slow cognitive decline and decrease the negative neural changes resulting from normal aging and from several diseases. It is possible that exercise may also prevent or repair alcohol-related neurological damage.
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, led by study's author Hollis Karoly, a doctoral student in CU-Boulder's psychology and neuroscience department, tested the theory hat aerobic exercise protects white matter in anterior and dorsal areas of the brain from damage related to heavy alcohol use.
This study included sixty individuals; 37 men and 23 women, ranging from moderate drinkers to heavy drinkers and who were drawn from a larger pool of people under study for alcohol and nicotine issues notes Karoly. All participants had taken a standard written test known as the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, or AUDIT. The AUDIT was developed by the World Health Organization (WHO)in 1982, as a simple method of screening for excessive drinking and to assist in brief assessment. It can help in identifying excessive drinking as the cause of the presenting illness. It also provides a framework for intervention to help hazardous and harmful drinkers reduce or cease alcohol consumption and thereby avoid the harmful consequences of their drinking. The subjects also self-reported their successes or failures in attempting to control their drinking, as well as the amount of exercise they were undertaking.
All subjects had previously underwent a modified type of MRI known as Diffusion Tensor Imaging, or DTI. The imagery allowed the researchers to track the position and direction of water molecules traveling parallel to axons, or nerve fibers, in the white matter as they move through the brain. DTI allows researchers to see the orientation of the axons, (a long, cable like projection of the cell carries the electrochemical message (nerve impulse or action potential) along the length of the cell) different colors represented different directions of travel -- providing valuable information about the brain's communication superhighways. The DTI has become one of the most popular MRI techniques in brain research, as well as in clinical practice.
All participants participated in aerobic exercise.
The research team examined several parts of the brain, including the external capsule, a collection of white matter fibers connecting different layers of the brain. They also looked at the superior longitudinal fasciculus, two long bundles of neurons connecting the front and back of the cerebrum, which is the largest part of the brain and is believed to be the place where the origin of thoughts, perception, judgment, decision-making and imagination takes place, according to neurologists.
The results showed a significant interaction was observed between alcohol consumption and aerobic exercise participation on FA in the SLF and EC. In the models examining loss of control over drinking, a significant interaction between aerobic exercise and alcohol consumption was observed, such that alcohol consumption was associated with loss of control more strongly for low exercisers than high exercisers.
In their conclusion the team writes “These results indicate that the association between heavy alcohol consumption and WM damage in the EC and SLF and the association between alcohol consumption and loss of control over drinking are greater among individuals who do not exercise regularly. These results are consistent with the notion that exercise may protect WM integrity from alcohol-related damage. “
Dr. Angela Bryan, PhD, Co-Director CUChange Lab, located at the University of Colorado (CU) Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the university, and one of the co-authors of this study states "This study is preliminary, but promising.”"From my perspective, the major finding is the possibility that exercise might be able to either buffer against or undo some of the damage that heavy alcohol use does to the brain."
Dr. Bryan commented about the study "What our data suggest is that beyond just giving people a different outlet for cravings or urges for alcohol, exercise might also help to repair the damage that may have been done to the brain.” "It might even be a more promising treatment approach for alcohol problems because it is both a behavioral treatment and a treatment that has the potential to make the brain more healthy. The healthier the brain is, the more likely a person with alcohol issues is to recover."
In general, aerobic exercise is recommended because of its benefits to brain, heart and muscles said Karoly. She adds other studies have shown that aerobic exercise is associated with greater white matter volume and integrity among older healthy adults.
In closing Karoly states “This is an exploratory study and it is not our intention to suggest a person can erase the physiological damage of years of heavy drinking by exercising.”"Some of the specific mechanisms in the brain linked to heavy drinking and exercise are not well understood, and we hope our study will inspire future research on the subject."
Other Co-authors of this study included Dr. Kent Hutchinson, PhD.,Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, CU doctoral students Courtney Stevens and Rachel Thayer and Dr. Renee Magnan, PhD.,assistant professor Department of Psychology, Washington State University Vancouver.
An early view of this study is published April 16th in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
More information on the effects of alcohol on the brain can be found online at Science Net Links.
Slideshow; Aeorbic Exercise and Health Conditions