Antioxidants, already widely promoted as cancer-fighters, also may help protect the brain from chronic alcohol damage.
Chronic alcoholism damages parts of the brain used in learning and memory, but giving rats an antioxidant protected them from the damage, according to researchers working in the United States and Spain.
The findings are reported in Tuesday's online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Antioxidants are chemicals that inhibit the oxidation of a substance to which they are added. Oxidation can stress or damage cells.
The team, led by Dr. Daniel G. Herrera of Weill Medical College of Cornell University, fed rats a liquid diet containing alcohol for six weeks.
They found a 66 percent decrease in the number of new cells in crucial parts of the brain and an increase in cell death of more than 227 percent.
But in rats that also received injections of the antioxidant ebselen, the damage to developing cells did not occur, the researchers said. Those rats had the same brain characteristics as a group that received no alcohol.
Alcohol also kills liver cells, and the researchers knew that this can be reduced with the use of antioxidants, Herrera said. They decided to see if the same held for the brain.
Ebselen was used because it is known to have protective effects in the liver and digestive tract and has few side effects in humans.
Finding ways to improve mental function in people, particularly the elderly, might increase positive results of alcohol treatment programs, Herrera said in a statement.
Dr. Antonio Noronha, chief of the neuroscience and behavior branch of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said this is the first study to show the effects of antioxidants on chronic alcohol damage.
Noronha, who was not part of the research team, said similar findings have been reported in studies at the University of North Carolina, but those focused on binge drinking and used a different antioxidant.
The mechanism by which alcohol damages portions of the brain is still not fully understood, he said. Oxidative stress seems to be part of it, and the antioxidants appear to be protective.
Other reports in the same issue of Proceedings included: