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Keywords:

  • Moderate;
  • Ethanol;
  • Brain;
  • Behavior;
  • Biology

The concept of moderate consumption of ethanol (beverage alcohol) has evolved over time from considering this level of intake to be nonintoxicating and noninjurious, to encompassing levels defined as “statistically” normal in particular populations, and the public health-driven concepts that define moderate drinking as the level corresponding to the lowest overall rate of morbidity or mortality in a population. The various approaches to defining moderate consumption of ethanol provide for a range of intakes that can result in blood ethanol concentrations ranging from 5 to 6 mg/dl, to levels of over 90 mg/dl (i.e., 20 mM). This review summarizes available information regarding the effects of moderate consumption of ethanol on the adult and the developing nervous systems. The metabolism of ethanol in the human is reviewed to allow for proper appreciation of the important variables that interact to influence the level of exposure of the brain to ethanol once ethanol is orally consumed. At the neurochemical level, the moderate consumption of ethanol selectively affects the function of GABA, glutamatergic, serotonergic, dopaminergic, cholinergic, and opioid neuronal systems. Ethanol can affect these systems directly, and/or the interactions between and among these systems become important in the expression of ethanol's actions. The behavioral consequences of ethanol's actions on brain neurochemistry, and the neurochemical effects themselves, are very much dose- and time-related, and the collage of ethanol's actions can change significantly even on the rising and falling phases of the blood ethanol curve. The behavioral effects of moderate ethanol intake can encompass events that the human or other animal can perceive as reinforcing through either positive (e.g., pleasurable, activating) or negative (e.g., anxiolysis, stress reduction) reinforcement mechanisms. Genetic factors and gender play an important role in the metabolism and behavioral actions of ethanol, and doses of ethanol producing pleasurable feelings, activation, and reduction of anxiety in some humans/animals can have aversive, sedative, or no effect in others. Research on the cognitive effects of acute and chronic moderate intake of ethanol is reviewed, and although a number of studies have noted a measurable diminution in neuropsychologic parameters in habitual consumers of moderate amounts of ethanol, others have not found such changes. Recent studies have also noted some positive effects of moderate ethanol consumption on cognitive performance in the aging human. The moderate consumption of ethanol by pregnant women can have significant consequences on the developing nervous system of the fetus. Consumption of ethanol during pregnancy at levels considered to be in the moderate range can generate fetal alcohol effects (behavioral, cognitive anomalies) in the offspring. A number of factors–including gestational period, the periodicity of the mother's drinking, genetic factors, etc.–play important roles in determining the effect of ethanol on the developing central nervous system. A series of recommendations for future research endeavors, at all levels, is included with this review as part of the assessment of the effects of moderate ethanol consumption on the central nervous system