HEAVY social drinkers show similar patterns of brain damage as that seen in hospitalised alcoholics, researchers have warned.
Consuming as little as half bottle of wine each day can result in loss of memory, reduced intelligence, poor balance and impaired mental agility.
Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at physical brain structures and measured chemicals associated with brain function while asking people to take part in various mental tests.
Their findings come as a survey shows that a quarter of Britons believe alcohol is good for them, and nearly one in five says it relieves stress.
Scientists at the University of California examined 46 chronic, heavy drinkers and 53 light drinkers.
Men were considered to be heavy drinkers if they consumed more than an average of 100 alcoholic drinks a month over a three-month period, while women were considered heavy drinkers if they consumed more than an average of 80 drinks per month during the same period.
Participants in the study then took part in tests looking at verbal intelligence, processing speed, balance, spatial function, learning and memory.
The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, wrote: "Our heavy-drinkers sample was significantly impaired on measures of working memory, processing speed, attention, executive function and balance."
The brain structures and levels of certain chemicals also showed similarities with brain damage in alcoholics receiving hospital treatment.
Dieter Meyerhoff, one of the authors of the study, said: "What our findings indicate is that brain damage is detectable in heavy drinkers who are not in treatment and function relatively well in the community."
Alcohol-related deaths in Scotland have trebled in the last 20 years. More than 1,900 people now die annually with alcohol cited as a contributing factor.
Alcohol-related problems also cost Scotland 1 billion a year and cost the health service around 96 million.
In a Mintel study, also released yesterday, three-quarters of nearly 1,000 Britons questioned said they believed there was nothing wrong with alcohol in moderate quantities, with 26 per cent stating it was good for the health.
Thirteen per cent said their social life would not be the same if they did not drink, while 17 per cent said that alcohol was "great at relieving stress" - an increase of 3 per cent since 2002.
Jack Law, the chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: "Brain damage amongst heavy social drinkers ties in with the prevalent drinking culture and attitudes that believe that it is acceptable to drink to get drunk in binges, and a misplaced belief that health problems only happen to chronic long-term drinkers.
"Medical evidence suggests that drinking alcohol in excessive quantities can cause physical and psychological damage.
"Whilst some people believe, as this survey reveals, that drinking alcohol is good for health, evidence suggests that benefits are minimal and only occur when alcohol is drunk within moderate amounts.
"Rather than relieving stress, drinking to reduce stress can create a circle as the problems that create the stress remain and drinking to avoid stress can become habit-forming, creating alcohol dependency and creating additional stress - for example, arguing with friends and family over drinking, money and work problems or health worries.
"Alcohol Focus Scotland would discourage people from drinking excessively and encourage them to think about drinking responsibly."
Scotland saw a 50 per cent increase in illnesses attributed to drink and alcohol-related hospital admissions between 1991 and 2001. An increase of the "ladette culture", with binge drinking among women, has also given cause for concern.
According to the latest constituency profiles, looking at health factors across the country, alcohol-related problems are not solely restricted to socio-economically deprived urban areas, with the Western Isles and Argyll and Bute ranking fifth and sixth in the league table of drink-related hospital admissions.
Part of the increase in drinking has been put down to easy access to and cheaper availability of alcohol in relation to disposable income.
Earlier this year the Scottish Executive announced 8 million over two years to increase resources for alcohol treatment and rehabilitation services.
Beer the real culprit for gout
THE old wives’ tale that port causes gout has been dismissed with research saying that the condition is much more likely to be brought on by drinking beer.
Researchers looked at alcohol consumption and incidence of gout among 47,000 male medical staff over a 12-year period and found that spirits were less likely to contribute to the condition than beer, while there was no link to being diagnosed with gout and drinking wine.
The study showed that men who drank two or more beers a day were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop gout than those who did not drink.
Men drinking the same levels of spirits a day were 1.6 times more likely to suffer from the condition than those who did not drink, while those supping a moderate amount of wine each day were not considered to be at risk.
The research, carried out at Massachusetts General Hospital in the United States, were published in the medical journal Lancet.
Gout is a condition which causes the inflammation of the joints and often starts in the feet or toes. The joint swells and the skin around the area feels tight while turning a purplish red and shiny colour.
The consumption of alcohol causes hyperuricaemia (an increased production of uric acid in the blood) which, once deposited in a person’s joints, can lead to gout.
From nearly 50,000 men who were studied, 730 cases of gout were confirmed.