Can fish oil protect against brain damage caused by alcohol abuse?

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According to a new study in PLOS ONE, omega-3 fish oil could protect against damage to the brain caused by alcohol abuse.

Previous studies have suggested that long-term alcohol abuse causes brain damage and increases the risk of dementia.

However, researchers from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in Illinois – who conducted this recent study – previously performed a meta-analysis that found drinking alcohol at moderate, social levels – a maximum of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women – may reduce risk of dementia and cognitive impairment during aging.

man with bottles of alcohol
Studies have suggested that long-term alcohol abuse causes brain damage and increases the risk of dementia.

The team reasons that alcohol in moderate amounts “toughens up” brain cells, which makes them more resilient to damage, but that excessive amounts of alcohol overwhelms the cells, causing neuroinflammation and cell death.

To investigate the extent to which omega-3 fish oil may protect against this damage, the researchers behind the meta-analysis – with collaborators at the University of Kentucky and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – conducted a new experiment with cultures of adult rat brain cells.

Over several days, they exposed the cell cultures to alcohol concentrations the equivalent of four times the legal limit for driving. This level of alcohol exposure is similar to that seen in chronic alcoholics.

The researchers then compared the brain cultures with other cultures that had also been exposed to the same levels of alcohol, but with the addition of the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) compound found in fish oil.


The team observed that there was up to 90% less neuroinflammation and neuronal death in the brain cells that had been exposed to DHA than in the cells that had just been exposed to alcohol.

“Fish oil has the potential of helping preserve brain integrity in chronic alcohol abusers,” says study author Michael A. Collins, PhD. “At the very least, it is unlikely that it would hurt them.”

However, the team states that further studies are needed to confirm their findings.

They add that the best way for people abusing alcohol to avoid brain damage is to reduce their drinking to low or moderate amounts, or to give up alcohol altogether.

fish oil supplements arranged in the shape of a fish
“Fish oil has the potential of helping preserve brain integrity in chronic alcohol abusers,” says study author Michael A. Collins, PhD.

“We don’t want people to think it is okay to take a few fish oil capsules and then continue to go on abusing alcohol,” says Collins.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study published in BMJ that found alcohol does not benefit the heart. The authors of that study suggest that reduced alcohol consumption – even among light-to-moderate drinkers – improves heart health.

Also, in April, we reported on a study by University of Utah neuroscientists, which investigated the region of the brain that regulates our sensitivity to the negative effects of alcohol.

The team behind that study found that when they inactivated a brain region called the lateral habenula in a group of rats and gave the animals access to alcohol, the rats escalated their drinking faster than a control group of rats.

The researchers concluded that the rats with the inactive lateral habenulas were unable to learn from bad experiences, unlike the control rats, who modified their behavior to avoid the negative consequences of a hangover.