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Health & Fitness

How heavy alcohol drinkers harm their offspring

A pregnant woman drinking wine
A pregnant woman drinking wine. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The effects of excessive alcohol intake are well known. Numerous studies indicate that it predisposes people to a myriad of health and mental conditions.

They include memory loss, trouble learning, alcoholic hepatitis, liver fibrosis, heart problems, high blood pressure and different cancers (throat, mouth, larynx, breast, liver, colorectal or oesophageal).

Most people usually assume that the detrimental effects of alcohol only harm drinkers.

But a new study conducted by researchers from two US- based universities - Purdue and Indiana – paint a different picture.

It notes that adverse effects of alcohol abuse can be transmitted from parents to their offspring.

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Health experts therefore note that the stake is high for heavy drinkers, as they face a double burden consequence for their actions.

Aside from enduring the adverse effects of alcoholism on themselves, they also predispose their loved ones to challenges associated with the bottle.

Findings of the new study, which is published in the current issue of NeuroImage Journal, reveals that just having a parent with an alcohol use disorder impedes proper functioning of the brain.

Alcohol use disorder is a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling one’s drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when people rapidly decrease or stop drinking.

In between completing a mentally demanding task and resting, the brain usually reconfigures itself, so it can go back to its normal working condition.

But for offspring of alcoholics, brain transitions between active and resting states do not happen optimally— regardless of their own drinking habits. These brain transition gaps do not seem to interfere with how well affected individuals perform mentally demanding tasks.

However, the researchers note that they could predispose people to behaviour associated with addiction. Indeed, study participants with non-functioning active and brain resting mechanisms demonstrated greater impatience in waiting for rewards. This is a behaviour associated with addiction.

“You don't have to be a drinker for your brain to be affected by alcoholism. In the past, we've assumed that a person who doesn't drink excessively is healthy. But this work shows that a person with just a family history of alcoholism may also have some subtle differences in how their brains operate," said Joaquín Goñi, a Purdue assistant professor in the School of Industrial Engineering and the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering who was involved in the research.

He noted that the process through which the brain reconfigures itself between active and resting states is similar to how a computer closes down a program after users are finished with it.

"The moment you close a programme, a computer has to remove it from memory, reorganise the cache and maybe clear out some temporary files. This helps the computer to prepare for the next task."

"In a similar way, we've found that this reconfiguration process in the human brain is associated with finishing a task and getting ready for what's next," stated Goñi whose research group (the CONNplexity Lab) takes a computational approach to neuroscience and cognitive science.

Past research has shown that a family history of alcoholism affects a person's brain anatomy and physiology.

But most of these studies only looked at the effects separately - in active and quiet resting states of the brain - rather than looking at the transitions between the two phases.

"A lot of what brains do is switch between different tasks and states. We suspected that this task switching might be somewhat lower in people with a family history of alcoholism," said David Kareken, a professor of neurology at the Indiana University School of Medicine and director of the Indiana Alcohol Research Centre who was part of the new study’s research team.

The study defined a "family history of alcoholism" as someone with a parent who had enough symptoms to constitute an alcohol use disorder. About half of the 54 study participants had this history.

Researchers at Indiana University measured the brain activity of subjects with an MRI scanner as they completed a mentally demanding task on a computer.

The task required them to unpredictably hold back from pressing a left or right key. After completing the task, the subjects rested while watching a fixed point on the screen. A separate task outside of the MRI scanner gauged how participants responded to rewards, asking questions such as if they would like $20 (Sh2000) now or $200 (Sh20, 000) in one year. The researchers then processed the data and developed a computational framework for extracting different patterns of brain connectivity between completing the mentally demanding task and entering the resting state.

The data revealed that these brain connectivity patterns reconfigured within the first three minutes after finishing the task. However, by the fourth minute of rest, the effect had completely disappeared.

Subjects lacking the transition also had the risk factors that researchers have seen to be consistent with developing alcoholism such as being male, having numerous depression symptoms and exhibiting reward-impatience behaviours.

Recommended tips for allaying alcoholism include the following: knowing one's limits, refraining from keeping alcohol at home, making friends with non-drinkers, joining support groups or enrolling in a treatment programme to get professional help for alcohol abuse.

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