Mighty things from small beginnings

  • Tiny fragments of cells called platelets are responsible for clotting.
  • Clotting after injury stops bleeding; clotting within a blood vessel can obstruct blood flow to the heart muscle, leading to a heart attack.
  • Alcohol may 'thin' the blood, thereby reducing the chances of vessel obstruction.
  • The anticoagulant properties of alcohol are dose specific, occurring at blood-alcohol concentrations associated with moderate drinking.
Like many parts of the human body, a platelet is a tiny but essential team member. One of its primary functions is to form blood clots -- this is called platelet aggregation -- both internally and externally. A study in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has found that certain levels of alcohol consumption may have positive consequences for coronary artery disease by inhibiting internal platelet aggregation.

"Platelet aggregation is an extremely important event in a heart attack," said Adam K. Myers, professor of physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center and lead author of the study. "The threatening event in coronary artery disease is the formation of a clot within the blood vessel by platelets."

Platelets are made in bone marrow; a drop of blood contains some 15 million platelets. Although they are often called cells themselves, platelets are really fragments of other cells that are activated whenever blood clotting or repair to a vessel is necessary. Under normal circumstances, when an injury or cut occurs, platelets rapidly accumulate at the site of blood-vessel damage, swell into odd, irregular shapes, grow sticky and clog at the cut, thereby creating a plug. Under abnormal circumstances, such as coronary artery disease, a blood clot occurs within a blood vessel and obstructs the normal flow of blood, leading to a heart attack. . The inability to clot following injury is called "hemophilia." Blood clotting that obstructs flow is called "thrombosis.

Contact: Adam K. Myers, Ph.D.
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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