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Aerobic Exercises Can Erase Damage From Heavy Drinking

Update Date: Apr 16, 2013 03:59 PM EDT

Exercising and doing physical activities every day have been known to have several health benefits. Previous studies have suggested that aerobic exercises may help slow down the neurological decline seen in people who are aging and in brain disease patients. In a more recent study, researchers looked into the effects of performing aerobic exercises on neurological impairments that result from alcohol consumption. The researchers hypothesized that since aerobic exercise has been known to help repair certain cognitive abilities seen in other cases, it might also help alleviate the damage that alcohol has on the brain as well.

"Engaging in regular aerobic exercise has been found to improve learning, memory, and self-control," said Hollis C. Karoly, the corresponding author. "This seems to be particularly true among older adults who exercise regularly, which suggests that exercise may prevent a natural loss in cognitive functions that occurs as people age. Additionally, exercise has been shown to protect white matter in the brain from damage associated with aging and various diseases. Given that exercise is protective against some of the neural and cognitive effects of aging, it seemed likely that aerobic exercise may also work to reverse or prevent some of the damage to the brain caused by chronic alcohol consumption." Karoly is also a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Other researchers have found that heavy alcohol consumption tends to cause problems in the white matter region of the brain. Although not every heavy drinker might develop this problem, several do and understanding how to prevent that damage form becoming permanent would prevent several brain diseases. In this study, Karoly and her colleagues looked at the brain and clinical data from 60 volunteers, 37 were men and 23 were women who participated in earlier studies that measured levels of alcohol consumption, aerobic exercise, control over drinking and nicotine use. The participants also had a diffusion tensor imaging session so that the researchers could study their brains.

The researchers found that there was a relationship between aerobic exercise and the white matter in the brain associated with heavy drinking. The team concluded that heavy drinkers who exercised more had healthier white matter than drinkers who did not exercise. The white matter region of the brain is associated with numerous brain functions, and when this area is damaged, it can lead to sensory problem, cognitive impairments and motor deficits.

"Although we don't know yet if the exercise is protecting against alcohol-related damage, or if it is a sign of factors linked to brain health, this is a very compelling study. This suggests that individuals who have experienced alcohol-related brain problems could possibly use exercise to help recover those effects; studying people over time will tell us if this is in fact the case," Susan F. Tapert, a psychiatry professor from the University of California and chief of psychology at the VA San Diego said.

The study is scheduled to be published in the September 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research but the results are accessible via Early View. 

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