Secret of cardiovascular benefits of alcohol unravelled

January 13, 2011 by  

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At least in southern Europe, it is believed, that a glass of wine a day, keeps the doctor away.  Wine is an integral part of the supposedly healthy Mediterranean diet. Many studies also support this statement when it comes to cardiovascular health.  Population studies have shown that light to moderate drinkers have 20 to 40 percent lower heart disease and cardiac-related death compared to people who don’t drink. The secret has been unraveled.

Scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center discovered that the molecule Notch may be the reason for alcohol’s “protective” properites.  They found that drinking alcohol moderately, say one to three drinks per day, inhibits Notch, which previous research has shown, influences vascular smooth muscle cell development. The growth and movement of smooth muscle cells in blood vessels can lead to the hardening and narrowing of arteries, known as atherosclerosis, or in the other case, the re-narrowing of arteries, or restenosis.  Atherosclerosis and restenosis are risk factors for heart attack and stroke. 

The researchers found in mice and humans that “regular, limited amounts of alcohol decreased Notch, which in turn decreased the production and growth of smooth muscle cells, leaving vessels open and relatively free of blockages or build-up – a desirable state for a healthy heart.

In the study, when human smooth muscle cells were treated with moderate levels of alcohol,  the expression of the Notch 1 receptor significantly decreased and this inhibited Notch signaling, resulting to decreased growth of smooth muscle cells. Artificially switching the Notch pathway in these cells reversed the inhibitory effect of moderate alcohol on smooth muscle cell growth.   Reduced vessel thickening was also observed in a group of mice which received alcohol in a mouse model of vessel remodeling (which occurs when vessels change their shapes in response to injury). 

By identifying Notch as the signalling pathway regulated by alcohol, the benefits of moderate drinking to cardiovascular diseases were finally identified at a molecular level.  The next step is to find out how alcohol inhibits Notch in smooth muscle cells and this is going to be a really challenging task, according to the Notch experts. 

Meanwhile, those with coronary diseases can enjoy and raise a glass.  Cheers!

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