According to Michael A. Collins, professor of biochemistry at Loyola University Chicago, alcohol is sort of a classic double-edged sword.
"Alcohol abuse, often in combination with poor nutrition, is responsible for a great deal of permanent organ damage, and that includes the brain,"
But "alcohol in low to moderate concentrations appears to promote cytoprotective cellular mechanisms, which might explain its beneficial effects.
Alcohol appears to have a complex relationship with cardiovascular and neurovascular diseases.
These include dose-dependent associations with a lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), a higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke throughout a range of drinking, a higher risk of ischemic stroke with heavier drinking, and a possible lower risk of dementia or cognitive decline with aging.
"We need greater insight into how cells in the adult brain and heart, in response to moderate alcohol exposure, are able to achieve a relatively protected state with respect to certain insults or cytotoxins," said Collins.
"Knowing more about these mechanisms might allow us to design 'non-addictive' molecules that trigger key cytoprotective biochemical steps, for example.
"This achievement, however small, potentially could have a significant impact, since heart disease is the major killer, and a new case of dementia from all causes is estimated to develop every seven seconds or so."
High amounts of alcohol are known to trigger inflammation. It is probably responsible for much of the organ damage of alcoholism."
However, alcohol in low to moderate amounts seems to do the opposite.
"It increases other factors that are typically anti-inflammatory in their effects," said Collins.
"After moderate alcohol exposure, we find higher levels of cellular 'heat shock' proteins which are well known to be neuroprotective," he added.
The study will be published in the February 2009 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.