Alcohol and thiamine deficiency together: a dangerous combination?

  • Heavy alcohol use is associated with thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency.
  • Alcohol and thiamine deficiency together may have a more damaging impact on the brain.
  • Learning and reference memory appear to be the most sensitive to their synergistic effects.
  • The role of thiamine supplementation is examined.
The damaging effects of alcoholism on the body are fairly obvious; the mechanisms by which that damage occurs are less apparent. Researchers and clinicians know that chronic abuse of alcohol may lead to a deficiency in thiamine (also known as Vitamin B1). This deficiency can wreak particular havoc on the brain, causing a wide spectrum of deficits in cognition, behavior, and motor coordination. What researchers now suspect, as noted in a recent study in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, is that chronic alcohol consumption and thiamine deficiency combined may have a synergistic and even more devastating effect on the brain and mental capacities.

"We were looking for an interaction between ethanol and thiamine deficiency," explained Philip J. Langlais, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, professor of neurosciences at the University of California - San Diego, and lead author of the study. "We wanted to see if you took thiamine deficiency and combined it with chronic alcohol intake, would you then create a situation that would produce a more severe impairment of cognition and memory than you would with either thiamine deficiency alone, or exposure to chronic alcohol ingestion alone." Using rat subjects, they did indeed find a synergistic effect, sometimes. Learning (for example, figuring out the rules of chess) and reference memory (remembering and consistently applying the rules) appeared the most sensitive to the damaging, synergistic effects of alcohol and thiamine deficiency. Short-term working memory (incorporating the rules of chess into game strategies), on the other hand,

Contact: Philip J. Langlais, Ph.D.
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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