Red, red wine

June 4th, 2007 by Dr. Merzenich

Alcohol is our best-studied neurotoxin. You can pickle a brain in booze. At somewhat lower concentrations that are quite easily achieved in drinking humans, ethanol alters synaptic spines and their plasticity, greatly reduces the complexity of neuronal interconnections, ultimately kills off your neurons, and shrinks your brain. Cognitive and motor losses are the predictable behavioral consequences of chronically drinking too much. While you’re burning up your liver over-indulging, you’re also seriously disrespecting your brain!

On the other hand, we have an increasingly complete scientific understanding of the neurological bases of the “French Paradox”, whereby the cardiovascular and neurological and hepatic health of regular imbibers of lots of red wine actually seem to BENEFIT from it. It turns out that red wine is rich in polyphenols that come from grape skins. These chemicals stimulate anti-oxidant processes in the body and brain, and have well-established neuro-protective effects. By this argument, red wine is brain food!

How does the balance of this equation work out in a real brain? Is alcohol a poison, or is it good for you? This is an especially important question for my wife Diane and me because we have a small vineyard at our home in Sonoma County in the “Wine Country” north of San Francisco in which we have about 300 red-grape plants (merlot, sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon), and our family has an annual wine-making ‘harvest festival’ that is an important event for us and our friends on our social calendar. Moreover, someone has to drink all of that red wine!!

Fortunately, scientists in Portugal (Assuncao et al., Neuroscience 146:1581) have answered this key question for us, by feeding rats raw alcohol, or the same amount of alcohol consumed as red wine. The consequences of that heavy drinking were recorded in the rats’ hippocampus. Alcohol alone resulted in clear pathology, and in significant memory and cognitive impairments. As red wine, the same heavy doses of alcohol had NO negative consequences, either in the physical brain, or for the rats’ memory or other cognitive abilities. Praise the Lord!

Gee, I hope this doesn’t mean that I have to cut back on my Scotch drinking! Or that some damn fool is going to figure out that plain old grape juice is better for you than fermented grape juice laced with alcohol (wine)!!