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How exercise may offset some of alcohol's damage

Regular exercise may counteract some of the brain-damaging effects of drinking alcohol, early results from a new study suggest.

In the study, heavy drinking was linked with damage to the brain's white matter, but only among those who didn't exercise very much. For those who exercised regularly, there was no link between heavy drinking and white-matter damage.

White matter forms "cables" in the brain that allow different areas to communicate. Because of the damage to drinkers' brains in the study, "white matter is not moving messages between areas of the brain as efficiently as normal," said study researcher Hollis Karoly, a doctoral researcher in Colorado University at Boulder's psychology and neuroscience department.

The researchers stressed the findings do not mean you can drink as much as you want as long as you exercise. Heavy drinking takes a toll on many organs in the body, not just the brain, Karoly said. And the study only looked at white matter — it's possible exercise does not ameliorate damage to other components of the brain, such as the brain's gray matter. 

In addition, the study only looked at participants' brains at one point in time. To find the reason for the link, more research is needed that follows people over time, Karoly said. It could be that people who exercise also engage in other behaviors that improve their brain health (such as eating healthy), or that exercise over many years is needed to have some sort of protective effect, Karoly said.

The study should encourage other researchers to further investigate the connection between exercise, alcohol consumption and brain health, Karoly said. In the future, exercise might be prescribed as an adjunct to treatment for people with alcohol abuse disorders, she said.

Previous research has shown that alcohol consumption damages white matter, while exercise has benefits to the brain. The new study looking at the connection between the two "was a logical next step," Karoly said.

The study involved 60 people who had their brains scanned, and answered questions about their alcohol consumption and exercise habits. Participants' drinking habits varied widely, from no drinks in the past two months to more than 300 in two months. Their exercise habits varied from no exercise in the past three months to about 420 minutes of exercise weekly.

More research is also needed to know whether the results apply to people with diagnosed alcohol disorders, Karoly said.

The study is published April 16 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

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