Drinking and Cognitive Decline

There is growing evidence that moderate alcohol consumption adversely impacts brain health, which contradicts earlier claims that moderate alcohol consumption could be beneficial due to some compounds in it. 

The pathological mechanisms by which alcohol is not yet well understood. One possibility according to some research is that iron overload contributes to alcohol-related neurodegeneration. For example, higher brain iron has now been implicated in the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and observational studies suggest that heavy alcohol use may be associated with iron accumulation, damaging the brain. 

In a recently published study, researchers investigated the relationships between alcohol consumption and brain iron levels. The study appears in the journal PLoSMedicine. 

Iron Accumulation in the Brain

For the study, the team included 20,729 participants from the UK Biobank. Their alcohol intake was self-reported via a touchscreen questionnaire at baseline (2006 to 2010). Multiorgan susceptibility-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (9.60 ± 1.10 years after baseline) was used to ascertain iron content of each brain region  and liver tissues, a marker of systemic iron.

Alcohol consumption, including at low levels, was observationally associated with higher brain iron in multiple basal ganglia regions. Alcohol was associated with both higher liver iron, an index of systemic iron load, and genetically predicted alcohol use disorder (AUD) associated with genetically predicted serum iron markers. 

Alcohol consumption above 7 units (56 g) weekly was associated with markers of higher iron in the basal ganglia, which in turn was associated with worse cognitive function.

The study findings suggest that even moderate alcohol consumption is associated with iron levels in the brain, and that it represents a potential mechanism for alcohol-related cognitive decline.  


Anya Topiwala, et al. Associations between moderate alcohol consumption, brain iron, and cognition in UK Biobank participants: Observational and mendelian randomization analyses. 2022. PLoS Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1004039 

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