Wine Is a Mocker

What effects does alcohol have upon the brain?

Bernell Baldwin, Ph.D., is associate professor of applied physiology at Loma Linda University School of Health, Loma Linda, California.

 

THERE is a special protective barrier system surrounding most of the brain, so that many irritating chemicals can not get access to the delicate human computer. But the alcohol molecule is of such shape and chemical character that it can easily penetrate into the human brain at a high velocity, in fact, so easily that within a few minutes the cells of the brain are bathed with this drug. The alcohol molecule itself is something like a double-bladed knife. One blade can easily penetrate fat, the other blade can easily penetrate water like substances. The fat blade can easily slice into the membranes of the brain cells. Sensitive protein enzymes located in these membranes are vital for the communication between one nerve cell and another. Di lute concentrations of alcohol so disrupt these enzymes that their normal activities are impossible. This means that the most sensitive cells throughout the en tire brain, the tiniest ones, because they have comparatively much membrane for a very small volume, are naturally going to feel the effects of this drug first. Large nerve cells that work in concert with many other fellow neurons to accomplish simple tasks appear to be less affected by this drug poison.

What effects does alcohol have upon brain waves? These electrical waves are measured and recorded by powerful electronic machines called electroencephalographs, which can be hooked up to computers and to automatic graphing machines in such a way that brain re searchers can discriminate the effects of tiny doses of alcohol on the human brain. This drug, as found in beer, wine, whiskey, or vodka, generally slows down human brain waves even at blood levels as low as 35 milligrams per cent (.035 per cent). The actual power (volt age) of these brain waves is commonly reduced by alcohol, and areas of the brain that process more complex information suffer more damage from alcohol than those areas of the brain that do simpler processing of incoming information.

Within the brain stem there is a large and important system called the reticular formation, which is very important in keeping the brain awake and aroused. If certain portions are destroyed, permanent coma results. Laboratory studies have shown that very low blood levels of alcohol depress this reticular formation, and hence the brain.

Connections between the frontal cortex (where the highest control of much brain activity is initiated) and the reticular formation enable a normal person to maintain vigilance in spite of fatigue or boredom. Light and sound are also important activators of this reticular formation. It seems quite reasonable that the combination of semidarkness, quiet, monotonous driving, and alcohol perfusing the reticular formation, as well as the rest of the brain, helps ex plain some of the single-car accidents of alcohol users. They tend to hit poles, trees, bridges, banks, and not a few pedestrians who are also similarly tranquilized.

But that's not all. Like a brilliant general, alcohol mounts a multi-pronged attack. Aside from its direct chemical effect on the membranes, enzymes, chemistry, and electronics of the nerve cell, it may interfere with delivery of oxygen to the brain cells. Moreover, it tends not only to displace good food from the diet, but also to reduce the appetite itself. Alcohol used heavily is a nutritional saboteur. The overall long-term result is that the most fragile, delicate, vulnerable, and important cells of the entire body, those of the most delicate parts of the brain, sicken and die by the millions. This cell death is forever. Many other cells, such as those lining the outside or the inside of the body, can be replaced when necessary, but the cells in the living computer—the brain—cannot be replaced. Dr. C. B. Courville, formerly head of the Cajal Laboratory of Neuropathology of the giant Los Angeles County General Hospital, autopsied thousands of human brains. He discovered that the most common cause of atrophy (loss of brain tissue) of the human brain during the fifth and sixth decades of life was alcoholism, and some cases were reported from even the fourth decade.

In his monograph Effects of Alcohol on the Nervous System of Man, Dr. Courville pointed out that there is a progressive loss of tissue from the cortex (the outer cell layers) and especially from the frontal lobes. This process tends to extend to other regions of this vital structure, although, as he noted, the sides, bottom, and back of the brain were usually spared. He also learned that some persons with this progressive atrophy of the frontal cortex have a specific behavior deficit termed "frontal lobe syndrome" (cf. "Frontal Lobes and Character," THE MINISTRY, Feb., 1976). Dr. Courville's findings have been con firmed and extended, and are well-accepted.

Farther back, high on the side of the brain, is a portion called the parietal lobe. This, too, is attacked by alcohol. Temporary or permanent damage here may well be related to other marked defects of thinking or cognition that are prominent in alcoholic persons.

Another newly appreciated area of alcoholic brain damage is that which occurs in the cerebellum (small brain). Nestled under and behind the larger brain, this special-purpose minicomputer is vitally important for the coordination and smoothing of the muscle activities of the entire body. The smallest, and even the larger, cells of this organ are gradually and inexorably destroyed by alcohol. The staggering of intoxication results partially from cerebellar poisoning.

About 90 per cent of the alcohol that is removed from the body is eliminated by enzymes in the liver. With continued drinking, these liver and brain enzymes change, so that some tolerance is built up. Obviously, then, data from studies of heavy drinkers are biased and cannot accurately reflect the effects of alcohol on the normal brain. As more and more evidence mounts that the experienced alcohol user has been gradually destroying his brain, the significance of even "low" alcohol levels becomes apparent. Tolerance is physically, as well as psychologically, treacherous. Chronic arsenic users can also "hold their poison" to a considerable degree. But mil lions more are killed with alcohol than fall victims of arsenic.

One wine glass holds a little more than three ounces of wine, which is about 12 to 18 per cent alcohol. This means it contains approximately one-half ounce of straight 100 per cent alcohol, as does one bottle of beer or one smaller glass of whiskey or vodka. This amount of the drug can produce a blood-alcohol concentration of about 20 to 40 milligrams per cent.

This one drink is enough to cause visual impairment and slow down brain function. But this is only the beginning of the problem. One drink calls for an other. People usually continue to drink until the desired effect is achieved. Then, too, behavior is contagious. What starts as experimental behavior be comes, in time, social behavior. Far too often, with continued use over a longer time and the development of tolerance and increasing life stress combined with less coping capacity (possibly from brain damage—either functional or structural, or both), alcohol consumption grows into a habit with psychological and then physical roots. It becomes a pseudo solution to stress. Neither the alcohol nor the stress stays away! Then, as in the case of ten million Americans, pathological roots sprout, grow, and grip the person with the malignant disease of alcoholism.

The wise man Solomon wrote, "Wine is a mocker" (Prov. 20:1). Alcohol mocks not only the brain, but the mind and spiritual powers, as well. It also mocks the family, the community, and love it self. Alcohol is both a physical and spiritual poison.

America needs a rebirth of that grand principle called temperance. True temperance teaches two things: moderate use of all good things, and total abstinence from all that is harmful. A person caught up in a maelstrom of distress needs professional help—an accurate diagnosis, and a wise prescription. Self-administration of alcohol has proven to be self-medication at its worst.


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Bernell Baldwin, Ph.D., is associate professor of applied physiology at Loma Linda University School of Health, Loma Linda, California.

July 1977

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