Research into the effects of light to moderate drinking on the brain has shown that even small amounts of alcohol can have an impact.

A large-scale study found that going from having one drink a day to two drinks a day is linked to changes in the brain that is equivalent to aging two years.

Even a small amount – less than one alcohol unit a day, or about half a beer – can reduce brain volume.

A team led by academics at the University of Pennsylvania in America looked at data from more than 36,000 adults, finding patterns that haven’t been identified before.

Henry Kranzler, from the Penn Center for Studies of Addiction, said: “These findings contrast with scientific and governmental guidelines on safe drinking limits. For example, although the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women consume an average of no more than one drink per day, recommended limits for men are twice that, an amount that exceeds the consumption level associated in the study with decreased brain volume.”

The team’s findings challenge previous studies that have suggested that moderate drinking may not have an effect on the brain. The researchers say these earlier studies did not examine large amounts of data, while theirs did.

Gideon Nave, a corresponding author on the study, said: “This study looked at average consumption, but we’re curious whether drinking one beer a day is better than drinking none during the week and then seven on the weekend. There’s some evidence that binge drinking is worse for the brain, but we haven’t looked closely at that yet.”

Co-corresponding author Remi Daviet added: “There is some evidence that the effect of drinking on the brain is exponential. So, one additional drink in a day could have more of an impact than any of the previous drinks that day. That means that cutting back on that final drink of the night might have a big effect in terms of brain aging.”

The study has been published in Nature Communications.

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