Aerobic exercise can help prevent and even reverse some brain damage linked to high alcohol intake, according to new research carried out at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The finding, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, suggests that routine aerobic exercise such as running, bicycling, and walking may help reduce the damage to the brain’s “white matter” among people who drink alcohol excessively.

White matter is made up of bundles of nerve cells that act as transmission lines that control communication between several different areas of the brain, according to one author, Hollis Karoly, a doctoral student in CU-Boulder’s psychology and neuroscience department.

Karoly explains:

“We found that for people who drink a lot and exercise a lot, there was not a strong relationship between alcohol and white matter. But for people who drink a lot and don’t exercise, our study showed the integrity of white matter is compromised in several areas of the brain. It basically means white matter is not moving messages between areas of the brain as efficiently as normal.”

The study consisted of 60 people – 23 women and 37 men – who ranged from moderate to heavy drinking, and who were chosen from a larger group of people being examined for alcohol and nicotine issues.

Volunteers took a standard written test called the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test – or AUDIT – which is used to identify harmful or dangerous drinking habits. The participants also documented their failures or successes in trying to limit their drinking, in addition to the amount of exercise they completed.

All volunteers had also undergone a modified type of MRI called Diffusion Tensor Imaging, or DTI. With this imaging, the investigators could follow the position and path of water molecules traveling parallel to axons – nerve fibers – in the white matter as they traveled through the brain.

DTI enables people to see the orientation of the axons – different colors accounted for different directions of movement – giving important information about the brain’s communication pathways.

The researchers examined many parts of the brain, such as the external capsules – a gathering of white matter fibers connecting several layers of the brain. Additionally, they viewed the superior longitudinal fasciculus – two long bundles of neurons that bridge the front and back of the cerebrum – the largest part of the brain and thought to control decision-makingm judgement, perception, thoughts and imagination.

Angela Bryan, co-author of the study said:

“What our data suggest is that beyond just giving people a different outlet for cravings or urges for alcohol, exercise might also help to repair the damage that may have been done to the brain. It might even be a more promising treatment approach for alcohol problems because it is both a behavioral treatment and a treatment that has the potential to make the brain more healthy. The healthier the brain is, the more likely a person with alcohol issues is to recover.”

Generally, aerobic exercise is advisable because of its advantages to heart, muscles, and the brain. Previous research has shown that this type of exercise is linked to increased white matter volume and integrity among older healthy adults.

Karoly concluded, “This is an exploratory study and it is not our intention to suggest a person can erase the physiological damage of years of heavy drinking by exercising. Some of the specific mechanisms in the brain linked to heavy drinking and exercise are not well understood, and we hope our study will inspire future research on the subject.”

In 2009, a study conducted that with alcohol-related brain damage, smoking can adversely affect recovery.

Another study suggested that alcohol abuse is more likely to result in brain damage in women than in men.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald