The research, presented at the European Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism, suggests that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can protect the brain from inflammation and cell death that is associated with high levels of alcohol intake - something that is a known risk factor for dementia.
Led by Dr Michael Collins from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, USA, the research tea exposed cultured brain cells of rats to high levels of alcohol on its own or in combination with DHA - finding that the omega-3 fatty acid protected the cultures from damage by alcohol.
Collins said that while she initial findings offer promise, further studies are needed to confirm whether fish oil protects against alcohol-related dementia.
"Fish oil has the potential of helping preserve brain integrity in abusers," he commented. "At the very least, it wouldn't hurt them."
However, Collins added that best way for an alcohol abuser to protect the brain is, if possible, to quit drinking or cut back to moderate amounts.
"We don't want people to think it's okay to take a few fish oil capsules and then continue to go on abusing alcohol," he added.
The research team noted that previous studies have shown that long-term alcohol abuse increases the risk of dementia, while it appears that small amounts of alcohol might, in effect, make brain cells more fit.
Indeed, alcohol in moderate amounts stresses cells and thus toughens them up to cope with major stresses down the road that could cause dementia, said the researchers. But too much alcohol overwhelms the cells, leading to inflammation and cell death.
In the new study, Collins and his team exposed cultures of adult rat brain cells to amounts of alcohol equivalent to more than four times the legal limit for driving.
These cell cultures were compared with cultures of brain cells exposed to the same high levels of alcohol plus DHA.
Collins and his colleagues found there was about 90% less neuroinflammation and neuronal death in the brain cells exposed to DHA and alcohol than in the cells exposed to alcohol alone.
The study findings were reported at the 14th Congress of the European Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism in Warsaw.