It’s perfectly normal to have a bit of selective memory loss after a heavy week on the booze. Or is it? The effect of alcohol on memory is not restricted to a reversible ‘don’t quite remember what I did last night’ after a bout of binge drinking. As time goes on, binge drinkers and long term heavy drinkers can expect to experience increasing memory loss and an accelerated decline in cognitive functioning. To put it more directly, alcohol related dementia (ARD).
Alcohol related dementia is the general term for several conditions, and the most severe form is called Korsakoff Syndrome. Alcohol related brain damage is believed to contribute to as many as 24% of dementia cases. The age group with the highest rate of ARD is 50 -60 years.
Korsakoff syndrome often occurs with Wernicke syndrome, another memory related condition which causes damage to the lower parts of the brain (thalamus and hypothalamus). Together they are known as Korsakoff –Wernicke syndrome but they can occur separately and may not be related to alcohol intake.
What causes it?
Long term vitamin B1 (Thiamine) deficiency is believed to be the root cause of both Korsakoff and Korsakoff-Wernicke syndrome. The commonest reason for a lack of Thiamine, is alcoholism but it can also be caused by problems absorbing nutrients from the gut, and chronic illness. There is some evidence that bariatric surgery for obesity can lead to Thiamine deficiency.
Alcohol related Korsakoff Syndrome
So how do you know if you have passed from a long-term hangover to Korsakoff Syndrome?
The key signs are:
⇒ Loss of memory
⇒ Difficulty making or holding onto new memories
⇒ Inability to form new memories
⇒ Making up tall tales (confabulation)
⇒ Seeing and hearing things that are not there (hallucinations)
AA - Acupuncture and Alcohol
Several studies have shown that acupuncture can reduce cravings for alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Study one, published in Sep 2014, investigated the effect of K19 acupuncture on alcohol craving in alcohol dependent patients. Volunteers were split into two groups. The treatment group were given needle acupuncture at K19 twice a week for four weeks. The control group were given placebo needle acupuncture. The level of alcohol craving was assessed before treatment, after treatment and then at 1,2 and 4 weeks post treatment. Results showed that the treatment group had less cravings for alcohol after treatment and for the time period at the end of treatment, when compare to the control group.
Study two investigated the effect of acupuncture on the activity of the HPA axis during alcohol withdrawal. Levels of the stress hormones were measured before and after ST36 acupuncture treatment. Results showed that the treatment reduced the hyperactivation of the HPA axis caused by alcohol withdrawal.
New Evidence on acupuncture and memory loss
Brain changes that occur with alcoholism and some forms of dementia include raised acetylcholinesterase activity, and raised malondialdehyde levels in the brain (hippocampus). The activity of enzymes that are associated with preventing oxidative damage, such as catalase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione peroxidase, are reduced in alcoholics. The combination of these biochemical changes are believed to be related to the loss of memory in alcoholics.
A new study published this month investigated the effect of acupuncture at HT7 on the levels of these chemicals in the hippocampus. Results showed that acetylcholinesterase activity and malondialdehyde levels were reduced and the activities of catalase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione peroxidase raised in the hippocampus after the acupuncture treatment. The implications are that acupuncture at HT7 could be the best point for effectively reducing alcohol-induced memory problems.
Ridley et al. Alcohol-related dementia: an update of the evidence. Alzheimer’s Res Ther. Jan 2013.
Phunchago et al. Acupuncture reduces memory impairment and oxidative stress and enhances cholinergic function in an animal model of alcoholism. J. Acupunct Meridian Stud. Feb 2015
Lee et al. Effect of Zhubin (K19) acupuncture in reducing alcohol craving in patients with alcohol dependence: A randomized placebo-controlled trial. Chin J Integr Med Sep 2014.
Zhao et al. Effects of Acupuncture at Zu-San-Li (ST36) on the activity of the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis during Ethanol Withdrawal in rats. J Acupunct Meridian Stud. Oct 2014.