Drinking too much wine damages the brain more than beer or spirits, scientists have discovered.
New research on the long-term effects of heavy drinking shows that one area of the brains of wine drinkers was smaller than that of other people studied who drank different drinks in greater amounts.
The ground-breaking study shows that the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory, spatial tasks and many other functions, was more than 10 per cent smaller in those whose tipple was wine than in those who favoured beer.
Researchers say that alcohol alone may not account for the differences because the beer and spirit drinkers had greater lifetime consumption of alcohol; in the case of beer drinkers some had consumed twice as much alcohol as the wine lovers. One theory is that there may be something in beer that partially protects the brain from the damage caused by wine.
"This is the first study investigating the impact of the type of preferred beverage on brain-volume shrinkage in patients with alcohol dependence," said the team of psychiatrists who carried out the work.
The study, reported in the medical journal Alcohol & Alcoholism, saw researchers carry out detailed brain scans of men and women diagnosed with alcoholism and compared them with brain scans of healthy adults. The size of the hippocampus was largest in the healthy group – 3.85ml. In beer drinkers it was 3.4ml, while the average for spirit drinkers was 2.9ml, and for wine drinkers, 2.8ml.
The researchers, from Germany's Göttingen University, believe the findings may be linked to a compound in the blood called homocysteine, which other studies have shown is linked to higher risks of heart disease, strokes, brain atrophy and dementia.
Researchers found that beer drinkers had the lowest levels of the compound. One theory is that other ingredients of beer – B vitamins and folate – may break down homocysteine.