No hard evidence champagne can prevent dementia

Behind the Headlines

Monday November 9 2015

Drinking too much alcohol can raise your dementia risk

Champagne contains a range of antioxidants

"Drinking three glasses of champagne per week could help stave off dementia and Alzheimer's disease," the Daily Mirror reports. But before you break out the Bolly, you should know the study that prompted this headline was on rats.

The study that forms the basis of these reports was actually published in 2013, but apparently recently went viral on social media. It looked at the possible effects of the phenolic acids found in champagne on memory in rats. Phenolic acids are similar to flavonoids, which are plant substances said to have antioxidant qualities. 

Three groups of eight rats were each given six weeks of daily champagne, a non-champagne alcoholic drink, or an alcohol-free drink. Their performance at finding treats in a maze was assessed before and after this period.

The main finding was that rats given champagne were better at remembering how to find the treat than those given the alcohol-free drink. They found the treats roughly five times out of eight, compared with four times out of eight in rats given the other drinks.  

A slightly improved maze performance in a small number of rats does not necessarily translate into humans having a reduced risk of dementia from drinking champagne. The health risks of consuming large amounts of alcohol are well known.

If you want to increase your flavonoid intake, there are far cheaper – and healthier – alternatives to champagne, such as parsley, peanuts and blueberries. But whether these would actually prevent dementia is unproven. 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Reading and the University of East Anglia. No sources of funding are reported and the authors declare no conflicts of interest.

It was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Antioxidants and Redox Signaling.

The media sources do not report responsibly on this early-stage animal research. The quantity of champagne consumed by the rats was said to be equivalent to 1.3 small glasses of champagne (around two units) a week for humans. And we can't be sure these results would apply to humans. 

What kind of research was this?

This animal research aimed to investigate the effects of certain phenolic acids found in champagne on the spatial memory of rodents.

Foods and drinks that contain flavonoids (a plant pigment) have received considerable attention over the past few years for their potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Recent research has also suggested they may have the potential to protect the brain and nerve cells. For example, some observational studies in humans suggested a low to moderate red wine intake could protect against cognitive impairment and dementia.

Red wine contains flavonoids as well as phenolic acids. These compounds are found at high levels in white wines, particularly champagne. The high phenolic compounds are said to come from the two red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the white grape Chardonnay, used in its production.

The theory the researchers wanted to test was that these compounds might be able to affect the nerves and blood vessels in the brain, resulting in changes to cognitive performance. To investigate this, they looked at the effects of moderate champagne intake on the spatial memory and movements of rats.  

What did the research involve?

The research involved three groups of adult male rats (eight in each) who were housed in standard conditions. The three groups were assigned to receive daily champagne, a non-champagne alcoholic carbonated drink, or an alcohol-free carbonated drink for six weeks. All three drinks had the same nutritional value and contained the same number of calories.

For the two alcoholic drinks, alcohol was given at a level of 1.78ml per kilo of of body weight. This was calculated to be roughly equivalent to 1.3 125ml glasses of champagne a week for humans. The drinks were given in the form of a mash, by mixing the drinks with a small amount of powdered food (8mg of food per 10ml of liquid).   

The rats' spatial and working memory was assessed using the maze test, which includes chambers and tunnels with visual cues and food rewards. These tests were given at the start of the study and after six weeks of drink supplementation.

The rats were given eight tests in the maze each time, and the researchers looked at how often the rats chose the correct route to get the food reward. Motor skills were also tested using a balance beam test.

After the study was completed, the rats' brains were examined in the laboratory – in particular, the hippocampus, which is the area involved with learning and memory.

Laboratory methods were also used to extract and measure the amount of phenolic compounds present in the champagne.    

What were the basic results?

At the six-week mark, accuracy in the maze test seemed to improve for the rats given champagne. At the study's start, average choice accuracy was 4.25 out of eight tests in all rats. After drink supplementation, accuracy was 3.50 in those given the alcohol-free drink, 4.00 in those given the non-champagne alcoholic drink, and 5.29 in those given champagne.

The difference was statistically significant between those given champagne and those given the alcohol-free control drink. The groups did not differ in the speed or distance walked along the balance beam.

After death, brain hippocampus examination revealed rats given champagne had increased levels of various proteins related to the division of cells and neuroplasticity (the ability of the nerve cells in the brain to adjust and adapt). 

The major phenolic compounds present in champagne were gallic acid, protocatechuic acid, tyrosol, caftaric acid and caffeic acid. These compounds were not found in the non-champagne alcoholic drink or the alcohol-free control drink. 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say their findings suggest that, "Smaller phenolics such as gallic acid, protocatechuic acid, tyrosol, caftaric acid and caffeic acid, in addition to flavonoids, are capable of exerting improvements in spatial memory via the modulation in hippocampal signaling and protein expression." 

Conclusion

This research found champagne might improve spatial memory in adult rats, possibly in relation to the phenolic acids in the drink. These chemicals are similar to another type of plant chemical called flavonoids, which have also been suggested as having biological effects on animals.

Previous research has suggested flavonoids may have effects on nerve cells in the brain and cognitive functioning. This study on rats found those given champagne to drink over six weeks seemed to have improved performance when finding treats in a maze test. These rats also seemed to have increased levels of brain proteins related to adaptability and learning.

However, before jumping to any conclusions, it should be noted this is a study on a small number of rats. The apparent improvements in the champagne group were only significant compared with the alcohol-free group – there was no significant difference in effect compared with the non-champagne alcoholic group. This means there is no firm proof these effects were directly the result of the phenolic compounds present in champagne.

This study is from 2013, and would ideally need to be repeated on a larger number of rats by other researchers to make sure it is correct.

This research has limited direct applicability to humans. Animal research like this can give a useful insight into the possible biological effects of a chemical, food or drink that may be transferable to humans.

However, we are not identical to rats, and it can't be guaranteed that the results would be the same. The fact that rats may have performed slightly better in a maze, or demonstrated some protein changes related to nerve adaptability, does not mean champagne definitely reduces the risk of dementia in humans.

The health risks of excessive alcohol consumption are well established. While we can't say for certain whether or not drinking champagne could have any effect on your future dementia risk, we can say regularly drinking high levels of alcohol is likely to cause many other health risks. 

It's not always possible to prevent dementia, particularly Alzheimer's, the most common form, which has no established cause beyond ageing and possibly genetics.

However, behavioural changes may help. To possibly reduce your risk of developing dementia and other serious health conditions, it's recommended that you:

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow NHS Choices on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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Media last reviewed: 07/04/2016

Next review due: 07/04/2019

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