Thursday, December 25, 2008

Smart kids are more likely to be heavy drinkers

There's a link between a high IQ and developing alcohol problems. Being highly intelligent in a world built around average people can be frustrating and alcohol is one solvent for frustration

The Colony Club in Soho has been a watering hole for hard-drinking creative types since it was founded by Muriel Belcher in the late 1940s. It is a reasonable bet that her confidants - Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Jeffrey and Bruce Bernard, Michael Andrews, Eduardo Paolozzi and other regulars from the art and entertainment world - would have had high IQs. Some members may have been nightmare clients for their bank managers, exasperating husbands, wives or lovers, but no one would doubt their talents, originality and intellectual ability. Research has now shown a link between high childhood IQ and an adult enthusiasm for alcohol that leads in some cases to problem drinking.

Parents may be aware that the easiest children to have around the house, and those who are also the most likely to have a predictable, comfortable lifestyle when adults, are those with a slightly aboveaverage intelligence, neither too clever, nor stupid. Most parents would be proud to be told by a teacher that their child has a higher IQ than his or her peers. It would not occur to anybody that there might be an association between that high IQ at the age of 10 and an enthusiasm for the drinking culture, leading occasionally to a problematic excessive alcohol intake.

This association is even stronger among women than among men. Research by Dr G. David Batty and colleagues at the University of Glasgow, published in the American Journal of Public Health, compared the mental ability scores of 8,170 British boys and girls at the age of 10 with their alcohol intake and any alcohol problems when they were 30.

Whereas most of the clever children grew up to drink as most people do, reasonably and moderately, the likelihood of developing a drinking problem if one were unusually bright increased 1.38 times in women and 1.17 times in men. Could this account for the importance of Oxford wine cellars in college life and, possibly, the tendency of intelligent heavy drinkers to start the habit while at university?

As most of us begin to look forward to and prepare for a convivial Christmas, it is as well to review thinking on alcohol. Nobody denies that excessive or binge drinking presents a danger to the drinker and those around them, but modest drinking is still life-preserving rather than life-limiting.

More women than ever are drinking to excess, and it is hard to know who will suffer liver damage and what level of alcohol consumption is liable to cause it. Nor can anyone condone Friday or Saturday night binge drinking. This represents a hazard to a young drinker's liver, even if most get away with it. It is also true that problem drinking by clubbers causes a considerable nuisance in the neighbourhood and contributes to petty crime.

The evidence that alcohol is a possible cause of breast cancer in women is now accepted, as alcohol increases the level of oestrogen and this is known to be carcinogenic. However, women can comfort themselves as they enjoy a glass of wine at Christmas that, statistically, those who drink in moderation are likely to live rather longer than their teetotal contemporaries.

Only 6 per cent of women and 8 per cent of men drink at what even the strict Department of Health considers a hazardous level. For the other 90 per cent-plus of the population, moderate drinkers as well as teetotallers, alcohol doesn't represent a health problem. Moderate drinkers even have a small but significant advantage over the teetotallers in the longevity stakes.

A surprising statistic is that, in the majority of the population, damaging patterns of drinking are falling. However, alcohol-related hospital admissions still show an increase. This may be because more medical conditions are now included under this category, and because more women are now drinking more than 20 years ago.

Although many common forms of heart disease are less likely in moderate drinkers, there is one adverse effect of alcohol on the heart. Up to 10 per cent of patients over 75 suffer from atrial fibrillation, an irregularity of the heart's rhythm. In 45 per cent of the cases in which a patient has suffered the most common form of stroke, it has been preceded by atrial fibrillation. Recent research, reviewed this month in the British Journal of Cardiology, suggests a strong association between atrial fibrillation and alcohol intake.


Blind man demonstrates 'blindsight' phenomenon by navigating obstacle course

A man who completely lost his sight after brain damage has astonished scientists by negotiating an obstacle course without his cane, in a powerful demonstration of an eerie phenomenon known as "blindsight". The man, known only as TN, was blinded by strokes on both sides of his brain which left him unable to see and devoid of any activity in the brain regions that control vision. He uses a stick to detect obstacles, and has to be guided around buildings. However, TN was known to exhibit blindsight, a strange ability some blind people have to detect things that they cannot see. He reacts to the facial expressions of other people, for example, and scans of his brain have confirmed that it registers facial emotions such as joy, anger and fear.

He has now shown evidence of an even more remarkable skill - the ability to navigate without being able to see. In an experiment, scientists arranged a series of boxes and chairs in an obstacle course and asked TN to move through it from one side of the room to the other without using his cane. To their amazement, he completed the course without hitting anything, earning applause from on-lookers.

Professor Beatrice de Gelder, of the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, who led the study, said: "This is absolutely the first study of this ability in humans. We see what humans can do, even with no awareness of seeing or any intentional avoidance of obstacles. It shows us the importance of evolutionarily ancient visual paths. They contribute more than we think they do for us to function in the real world."

TN's blindsight is likely to be explained by these alternative visual paths in the brain, which allow him to process information received through his eyes, which are still functional. He can then use this information to navigate even though he is unaware that he has the ability to see.

Professor de Gelder said: "It's a part of our vision that's for orienting and doing in the world rather than for understanding. All the time, we are using hidden resources of our brain, doing things we think we are unable to do." The research could have implications for treating patients with brain damage.


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