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Binge drinking affects ability to fight disease

By Karen Templeton
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE – It is no secret that excessive drinking can take a toll on the body, but new research from Mississippi State University shows that binge drinking can even weaken its ability to fight off infection.

Dr. Stephen Pruett, head of basic sciences at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Ruping Fan of Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center conducted a study examining the effects of binge drinking on the immune system. Binge drinking is the consumption of five or more drinks in one sitting.

Funded by the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, the study was published in the online journal BMC Immunology and has received national and international attention. Media outlets around the world have reported on Pruett and Fan’s work.

To examine the impact of alcohol on the immune system, Pruett and Fan gave laboratory mice varying amounts of alcohol and measured the effects. They also conducted similar studies in vitro, using cell cultures in test tubes. Results of their experiments showed that excessive alcohol consumption blocks important components of the immune system.

“The body produces proteins that activate a range of immune responses,” Pruett said. “The mice we studied were unable to produce these proteins, thus making them more susceptible to viruses, bacteria and parasite infections.”

Pruett said the time frame during which the risk of infection is increased might be at least 24 hours. Alcohol has a persistent effect on the body’s immune response system even after the alcohol is cleared from the body. This information can help researchers better understand how the immune system works.

“The knowledge that alcohol changes the ability to fight infection is helping us learn even more about the immune system and what keeps it functioning properly,” Pruett said. “If we know what it takes to diminish the immune system’s ability to fight off disease, we can then look at ways to counteract that.”

The results also help researchers understand what populations may be more susceptible to infections because of weakened immune systems.

“Dr. Pruett’s work is highly relevant to the general population but is especially important for college students because of the prevalence of binge drinking in young people,” said Dr. Jan Chambers, a College of Veterinary Medicine basic sciences professor. “Most college students are on their own for the first time, anxious to socialize and subject to peer pressure. The negative impacts of binge drinking on immunity make such populations of students even more vulnerable to the diseases that easily pass among people in crowded settings such as classrooms and dormitories.”

The results also fit into the body of knowledge on how a healthy lifestyle can help the immune system fight off illness more effectively.

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Released: Dec. 3, 2009
Contact:  Dr. Stephen Pruett, (662) 325-1130