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Researching the Connection Between Parkinson's and Alcoholism

March 16, 2023Neelem Sheikh

The long-term effects of excessive alcohol consumption on health and disease risk have long been studied. Excessive alcohol use affects nearly every organ in the human body and is recognized as a leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

Like most organs, the brain is vulnerable to damage from alcohol consumption. Recent research has investigated the long-term effects of alcohol consumption on brain health and the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

In this article, we discuss research surrounding the connection between Parkinson’s and alcoholism. 

The Effects of Prolonged Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Prolonged excessive alcohol consumption is known to increase the risk of serious health problems, including hypertension, stroke, heart disease, certain cancers, and liver disease. While the impact of alcohol use disorder on organs such as the heart and liver is well-understood, researchers are looking to understand how prolonged excessive alcohol consumption affects the brain, cognitive function, and neurodegenerative disease risk.

While moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with improved total cognitive function and improved function within domains such as word recall, mental status, and vocabulary, chronic excessive alcohol consumption may harm the brain and increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Chronic excessive alcohol intake has been found to cause cognitive impairment with white matter atrophy, axonal loss, and demyelination in brain regions such as the hippocampus, frontal lobe, and corpus callosum.

The Connection Between Parkinson’s and Alcoholism

The etiology of Parkinson’s disease is not well understood. Although we know age, sex, genetics, and environmental aspects (e.g., toxin exposure) play a role, modifiable risk factors for Parkinson’s disease are not well-established. However, significant research efforts continue to explore potential causes and risk factors for Parkinson’s disease, including alcohol use disorders.

Research surrounding alcohol consumption and Parkinson’s disease risk has shown mixed results; while some studies suggest that alcohol use is associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, others suggest no association between alcohol use and Parkinson’s risk. A handful of studies even suggest alcohol consumption may be associated with a slightly decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Analysis of data from a large prospective European cohort found no associations between baseline or lifetime total alcohol consumption and Parkinson’s disease risk. However, when stratified for sex, the analysis found that men with moderate lifetime consumption (5-29.9 g/day) were at an approximately 50% higher risk compared to light lifetime consumption (0.1-4.9 g/day), though no linear exposure-response trend was observed. Findings from a Swedish national cohort study found that a history of alcohol use disorder was associated with an increased risk of admission with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in both men and women. On the other hand, a meta-analysis of 11 prospective studies found that those who consume alcohol were at a slightly decreased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Currently, it is unclear if alcoholic beverage type (e.g., wine, beer, or liquor) plays a role. Some studies have shown that beer consumption was associated with a decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease, while wine and liquor were associated with an increased risk. This may be explained by differences in nutritional components between alcoholic beverages. However, assessing the effects of individual beverage types is challenging in clinical research, as many individuals—particularly those who are alcohol-dependent—practice drinking patterns involving more than one alcoholic beverage type.

Potential Mechanisms Linking Alcohol Use Disorders and Parkinson’s Disease

Although the connection between Parkinson’s and alcoholism requires further investigation, researchers have proposed several potential mechanisms that may explain this relationship.

Potential Physiological Mechanisms

  • Alcohol-induced oxidative stress in the brain

  • Alcohol-oxidative stress-induced mitochondrial apoptosis

  • Stress-induced neuroimmune response signaling

  • Alcohol-induced hyperglutamatergic excitotoxicity

  • Alcohol-induced neuronal apoptosis

Potential Genetic Mechanisms

  • Variants in genes encoding for alcohol dehydrogenase (e.g., ADH1B rs1229984T, ADH4, and ADH1C) in women

  • Variants in SNCA gene (encoding for ɑ-synuclein)

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For researchers, healthcare providers, and patients alike, there is a strong interest in identifying risk factors for Parkinson’s disease to potentially prevent, or slow the progression of, Parkinson’s disease. Further research is needed to better understand and address the connection between Parkinson’s and alcoholism.

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