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People prone to alcohol abuse have long been advised to "get out and do something" (other than bar hopping) to get their minds off drinking. A new study finds that getting out for exercise may evern reverse alcohol-related damage to the brain.

Scientists at the University of Colorado report that aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, and riding a bike, can reverse alcohol-related damage to the white matter of the brain.

What Is White Matter?


A little explanation of brain anatomy may be helpful in understanding the scientists' findings. The brain consists of neurons, some of which are "gray matter," and a slightly larger number of which are "white matter."

The gray matter is, as its name suggests, gray due to the presence of gray nuclei in each cell. These neurons are the part of the brain that does thinking, feeling, seeing, and remembering. 

They occupy about 40% of the volume of the brain, but they consume nearly 95% of the oxygen and glucose used by the brain.

The white matterof the brain is the part of the brain that conducts messages from the gray matter to the rest of the body. Unlike the gray matter, the neurons in the white matter are attached to long, extended fibers known as axons. These axons create a neural network in the brain for conducting information to and from the rest of the body to the cerebral cortex, and for 

controlling some body functions of which we are not consciously aware, such as temperature, blood pressure, hormones, appetite, and the expression of emotions.

Exercise Helps Heavy Drinkers Control Alcohol Intake

The researchers at the University of Colorado noted that scientists have known for a long time that heavy drinkers who don't exercise have more difficulty controlling their impulses to drink, and heavy drinkers who get aerobic exercise have less difficulty controlling their impulses to drink. What scientists had not known before this study was the reason why.

The UC Boulder researchers recruited 60 people with drinking problems and gave them pencil-and-paper quizzes to determine the amount they drank, how much control they had over what they drank, and the amount of aerobic exercise they got on a regular basis. Then the scientists had the participants in the study submit to brain scans with a procedure known as fractional anisotropy. The scan measured white matter in the fornix, the anterior and superior corona radiata, the external capsule, and the longitudianl fasciculus. 

Exercise Also Protects Parts of the Brain from Alcohol-Related Damage

As expected, the answers participants gave to questions about drinking and exercise showed that alcoholics who get more exericse also have more control over their drinking. And the brain scans showed that the study participants who got regular exercise also had more white matter in the external capsule (the white matter on the sides of the brain) and the superior longitudinal fasciculus (which relays information to working memory, and from the brain to the eyes and muscles for eye-hand coordination).

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Durazzo TC, Gazdzinski S, Mon A, Meyerhoff DJ. Cortical perfusion in alcohol-dependent individuals during short-term abstinence: relationships to resumption of hazardous drinking after treatment. Alcohol. 2010 May. 44(3):201-10. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2010.03.003.
  • Karoly HC, Stevens CJ, Thayer RE, Magnan RE, Bryan AD, Hutchison KE. Aerobic Exercise Moderates the Effect of Heavy Alcohol Consumption on White Matter Damage. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2013 Apr 2. doi: 10.1111/acer.12135. [Epub ahead of print].
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