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Interesting new research found health benefits to the brain from daily low intake of alcohol (equivalent to about 2 1/2 drinks per day). The University of Rochester (in New York) researchers found that while low daily (chronic) levels of alcohol were beneficial to the brain's glymphatic system, higher daily levels or binge drinking was not. And the low daily levels of alcohol intake was also better for the glymphatic system than no alcohol at all (the control group). In 2015 this same research team described the glymphatic system as not just the brain’s “waste-clearance system,” but as potentially helping fuel the brain by transporting glucose, lipids, amino acids, and neurotransmitters.

I'm sure this study will be greeted by many as great news, but remember it was done with MICE, and not humans, so one should be cautious in generalizing the results. But the researchers think that it does apply to humans, and may explain why some studies find some health benefits to low levels of daily alcohol intake, even better than no alcohol, and many negative effects to higher levels of alcohol intake - thus the J-shaped curve of effects seen in studies. [NOTE: Studies also find that alcohol consumption can cause cancer, and this is dose related. Studies find the Mediterranean diet (which includes low to moderate levels of alcohol) beneficial for brain health.]

By the way - no, the mice didn't receive wine as the press release from the Univ. of Rochester says. The mice actually received "intraperitoneal injections of low, intermediate, and high doses of ethanol" or just plain saline (the control group). From Science Daily:

In wine, there's health: Low levels of alcohol good for the brain

While a couple of glasses of wine can help clear the mind after a busy day, new research shows that it may actually help clean the mind as well. The new study, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that low levels of alcohol consumption tamp down inflammation and helps the brain clear away toxins, including those associated with Alzheimer's disease.

"Prolonged intake of excessive amounts of ethanol is known to have adverse effects on the central nervous system," said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and lead author of the study. "However, in this study we have shown for the first time that low doses of alcohol are potentially beneficial to brain health, namely it improves the brain's ability to remove waste." The finding adds to a growing body of research that point to the health benefits of low doses of alcohol. While excessive consumption of alcohol is a well-documented health hazard, many studies have linked lower levels of drinking with a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as a number of cancers.

Nedergaard's research focuses on the glymphatic system, the brain's unique cleaning process that was first described by Nedergaard and her colleagues in 2012. They showed how cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) is pumped into brain tissue and flushes away waste, including the proteins beta amyloid and tau that are associated with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Subsequent research has shown that the glymphatic system is more active while we sleep, can be damaged by stroke and trauma, and improves with exercise.

The new study, which was conducted in mice, looked at the impact of both acute and chronic alcohol exposure. When they studied the brains of animals exposed to high levels of alcohol over a long period of time, the researchers observed high levels of a molecular marker for inflammation, particularly in cells called astrocytes which are key regulators of the glymphatic system. They also noted impairment of the animal's cognitive abilities and motor skills.

Animals that were exposed to low levels of alcohol consumption, analogous to approximately 2 ½ drinks per day, actually showed less inflammation in the brain and their glymphatic system was more efficient in moving CSF through the brain and removing waste, compared to control mice who were not exposed to alcohol. The low dose animals' performance in the cognitive and motor tests was identical to the controls.

"The data on the effects of alcohol on the glymphatic system seemingly matches the J-shaped model relating to the dose effects of alcohol on general health and mortality, whereby low doses of alcohol are beneficial, while excessive consumption is detrimental to overall health" said Nedergaard. "Studies have shown that low-to-moderate alcohol intake is associated with a lesser risk of dementia, while heavy drinking for many years confers an increased risk of cognitive decline. This study may help explain why this occurs. Specifically, low doses of alcohol appear to improve overall brain health." [Original study. Especially interesting is the Introduction & Discussion sections.]

I can't resist posting excerpts from a recent article announcing that researchers just found an entirely new lymph system ("lymphatic vessels") in the brain that transports fluid in the brain, and is probably "crucial to metabolic and inflammatory processes".  The image in this post shows the system in the brain. Amazing that it is only now "discovered" - apparently it was noticed by an anatomist 2 centuries ago, but this was pooh-poohed by modern day physicians. Until now. Excerpts from the Atlantic:

Scientists Somehow Just Discovered a New System of Vessels in Our Brains

You are now among the first people to see the brain’s lymphatic system. The vessels in the photo above transport fluid that is likely crucial to metabolic and inflammatory processes. Until now, no one knew for sure that they existed. Doctors practicing today have been taught that there are no lymphatic vessels inside the skull. Those deep-purple vessels were seen for the first time in images published this week by researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

In the rest of the body, the lymphatic system collects and drains the fluid that bathes our cells, in the process exporting their waste. It also serves as a conduit for immune cells, which go out into the body looking for adversaries and learning how to distinguish self from other, and then travel back to lymph nodes and organs through lymphatic vessels.

Senior investigator Daniel Reich trained as both a neurologist and radiologist, and his expertise is in inflammatory brain disease. The connection between the immune system and the brain is at the core of what he says he spends most of his time thinking about: multiple sclerosis. The immune system appears to modulate or even underlie many neurologic diseases, and the cells of the central nervous system produce waste that needs to be washed away just like other metabolically active cells. This discovery should make it possible to study how the brain does that, how it circulates white blood cells, and how these processes may go awry in diseases or play a role in aging.

Around the same time, researchers discovered fluid in the brains of mice and humans that would become known as the “glymphatic system.” It was described by a team at the University of Rochester in 2015 as not just the brain’s “waste-clearance system,” but as potentially helping fuel thebrain by transporting glucose, lipids, amino acids, and neurotransmitters.

Wouldn’t neurosurgeons, at some point in their meticulous down-to-the-millimeter dissecting of brains, have stopped and said, “Hey ... what’s this thing?”The lymph vessels probably escaped detection because they’re inside a thick membrane, the dura mater, which is the consistency of leather. They run alongside blood vessels that are much larger, and on MRI the signal that creates the images is dominated by the blood vessels.  

But this pathway appears crucial to life and health. A 2013 study in Science found that glymphatic flow seems to increase by almost double during sleep (in mice). Sleep disturbances are a common feature in Alzheimer’s and other neurologic disorders, and it’s possible that inadequate clearing of the brain’s waste products is related to exacerbating or even causing the disease.... 

The flow of glymphatic fluid can change based on a person’s intake of omega-3 fatty acids, a study showed earlier this year. Preliminary findings like these together suggest a pathway through which nutrition and sleep can be related to neurologic disorders. Optimizing this glymphatic flow could become a central theme for the future of neurologic health. “If all of this is true, there probably is a connection between these two systems, glymphatic and lymphatic,” Reich said. “And that would be one of the major functions of cerebrospinal fluid.”

From The Atlantic. Credit: Daniel Reich/ National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke