Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

iStock
iStock

Watch someone after they’ve had a few drinks, and you’ll find clear evidence that alcohol does something to their brain. They stumble, slur their words, lose control of their emotions, and forget things. 

Some people have tried to explain this behavior as the aftermath of cell death caused by alcohol. Often, it’s packaged as a neat factoid like “Three beers kill 10,000 brain cells.”

But is this true? No. But alcohol does damage some of your 86 billion brain cells, or neurons, which send electrical and chemical messages within the brain and between it and other parts of the body. 

Ethyl alcohol (the kind found in boozy beverages, also known as ethanol) can kill cells and microorganisms. That’s what makes it an effective antiseptic. Fortunately, when you drink alcoholic beverages, your body tries not to let all of that ethanol roam around unchecked. Enzymes in your liver convert it first info acetaldehyde (which is highly toxic) and then into acetate, which is broken down into water and carbon dioxide and eliminated by your body.

The liver can only work so fast, though, processing about 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits per hour. If you’re knocking drinks back fast enough that your liver can’t keep up, the excess alcohol hangs out in the blood and travels through the body until it can be processed. 

When this alcohol reaches the brain, it doesn’t kill the cells. What it does is inhibit the communication between dendrites, or branching connections at the ends of neurons that send and receive information between neurons, in the cerebellum, a part of the brain involved in motor coordination. This poor communication results in some of the typical impairments of intoxication. 

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that alcohol, even when applied directly to neurons, didn’t kill them. It just interfered with the way they transmit information. Specifically, the researchers showed that alcohol causes certain receptors on neurons to manufacture steroids that inhibit memory formation. 

Some alcoholics can experience neuron death as part of a brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. In these cases, the evidence again suggests that the disease and cell death aren’t caused by the alcohol itself, but a B1 (or thiamine) deficiency and general malnutrition that often go hand in hand with alcoholism. 

For moderate drinkers, a number of studies from the last 15 years suggest that, far from killing brain cells, a little tipple is actually associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. 

What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For 2020, that means February 17 through March 10; June 18 through July 12; and October 14 through November 3. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

Why Are CVS Receipts So Incredibly Long?

cyano66/iStock via Getty Images
cyano66/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve ever conducted business at one of the nearly 10,000 CVS Pharmacy locations in the United States and count yourself among one of the estimated 62 million members of the store's ExtraCare discount incentive program, you’ve probably been handed a receipt that is more scroll than slip. These transactional documents, which have been known to literally be several feet of thermal paper long and full of merchandise coupons, are often wadded or folded up like a bath towel and handed off to the consumer.

Is this an environmentally mindful practice? And do these coupons really keep people coming back for more?

CVS has stated that the lengthy receipts are intended to demonstrate the value of being an ExtraCare member by offering ExtraCare Rewards, typically a dollar or percentage amount off of a single item or purchase. Some of the receipt's oversized real estate is also taken up by a solicitation to participate in a satisfaction survey. (Though it’s not likely that one of the questions is about the length of the receipt.)

A woman is pictured holding up a CVS receipt
stephen boisvert, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Simply put, the chain wants to vividly illustrate the benefits of being an ExtraCare member, which also helps the company by allowing them to track your purchase history. The idea is that the Russian novel-length receipt will excite consumers who feel as though a surplus of savings are being delivered right into their hands.

The problem is that the coupons are often quick to expire or can sometimes exclude sale items, registering disappointment when a returning customer presents a slip for $2 off a bar of soap.

You can, of course, opt out of receiving a paper receipt through your ExtraCare account online or via the app, though the process requires a few steps to complete. The coupons will then be sent digitally via your smartphone. Since introducing that paperless option in 2016, the company claims it has saved 3 billion inches of paper that would otherwise have been squeezed into a ball and stuffed into your glove compartment.

Alternately, you can always use it to replace a broken window blind.

Which brings us to the other and possibly most important motivation for those long receipts: Social media engagement. The more people express dismay at those long receipts, the more exposure CVS receives. Considering their 2018 merger with health insurance giant Aetna cost more than $70 billion, some free publicity could come in handy.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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