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How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain?

Alcohol use is widespread across the nation, and while once viewed as harmless in moderation, recent research has suggested that no amount of alcohol can be deemed safe for the body. While this is true, many people question whether or not alcohol actually kills brain cells. Research shows that while alcohol dramatically affects the brain and the body, it does not necessarily kill off brain cells. However, this doesn’t mean that alcohol is harmless to brain cells. Alcohol is a neurotoxin, a substance that alters the structure or function of the nervous system, and binge drinking or heavy drinking can cause irreversible damage to the brain and its neurons.

Alcohol impacts the brain in multiple ways, ranging from memory slips to chronic conditions requiring lifetime management and care. Alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication pathways and can change how the brain looks and functions. These disruptions can lead to changes in mood and behavior and impact concentration and coordination. For instance, a few drinks can result in memory loss, but large quantities of alcohol can result in a blackout. A blackout is a considerable lapse in memory where an individual cannot remember the details of an event or even entire events. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), multiple factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain, including:

  • How much and how often an individual drinks.
  • The age an individual first began drinking.
  • How long an individual has been drinking.
  • The person’s age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism.

Short And Long-Term Effects

Immediate effects occur in the brain the moment alcohol enters the bloodstream. Alcohol reaches the brain as soon as 5 minutes after consumption, and it takes only 10 minutes to feel some of the effects. These effects include slurred speech, disorientation, low coordination skills, slow reaction times, and impaired memory. Additional short-term effects include:

  • Feelings of relaxation or drowsiness
  • A sense of giddiness
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Changes in hearing or vision
  • Trouble focusing or making decisions

Additionally, consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time can lead to alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is where the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream is so high that it impacts the parts of the brain responsible for essential life functions. These functions include breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. If left untreated, alcohol poisoning can lead to permanent brain damage and death.

Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol

Heavy drinking over time can lead to a thiamine deficiency which can later develop into a brain disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome results in a loss of neurons in the brain, causing confusion, memory loss, and difficulty with muscle coordination.

Additionally, heavy drinking can lead to brain atrophy. Brain atrophy refers to brain shrinkage common among individuals who moderately drink. The area of the brain that shrinks due to drinking is the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and reason. The more an individual drinks, the more this brain region will shrink. Other long-term effects include:

  • Liver damage and cirrhosis of the liver
  • Stomach and intestinal ulcers 
  • Increased blood pressure 
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Increased risk of cancer

While the long-term effects of alcohol on the brain can be severe, most of the damage is reversible if an individual stops drinking. Even brain atrophy can start to reverse after a few weeks of limited alcohol use.

Alcohol’s Effect On Brain Development

Alcohol can have additional effects on developing brains, which are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Drinking during pregnancy can cause permanent damage to the brain and developing organs of the fetus. One of the most severe consequences of drinking while pregnant is fetal alcohol spectrum (FAS). FAS interferes with the brain’s growth and development, leading to lifelong physical, mental, and behavioral problems. Many children with FAS have learning disabilities, speech and language delay, memory issues, and intellectual disabilities. 

For adolescents and teens, underage drinking can significantly impact brain development. Research shows significant shrinkage of the hippocampus and smaller prefrontal lobes among teens who use alcohol versus teens who do not drink. The prefrontal lobe undergoes the most change during the teen years and is responsible for decision-making, language, and impulse control. These parts of the brain fully develop in an individual’s mid-twenties, so drinking during adolescence can heavily impact all of these functions.

Alcohol And The Body

Drinking too much, either over time or on a single occasion, can take a serious toll on the body. Besides the brain, alcohol impacts multiple parts of the body ranging from the heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system. For the heart, heavy drinking or abusing alcohol can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of stroke. Stretching of the heart muscle, known as cardiomyopathy, and irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmias, are additional conditions that can result from too much alcohol consumption. Moreover, the liver is the organ that processes and removes toxins, like alcohol, from the body. Long-term alcohol abuse interferes with this process and increases the risk of liver disease and inflammation. 

Additionally, alcohol abuse can cause the pancreas to produce toxic substances that lead to pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is the dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion. A damaged pancreas will also have issues processing and producing insulin for the body. Abusing alcohol can weaken the immune system and increase the body’s risk of disease. Drinking too much also slows the body’s ability to fight off infections. 

Finding Resources

The effects of alcohol on the brain vary depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, the timeframe of use, and additional personal factors. In general, the more an individual drinks, the more likely the brain will suffer long and short-term damage. Moderate alcohol consumption is one of the best strategies for reducing the risk of severe and permanent alcohol-related brain damage. However, if you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, additional treatment may be required. Treatment options include inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, support groups, and therapy. Contact a treatment provider with any questions.

  • Author: Carmen McCrackin | Last Updated: May 10, 2022

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    Carmen McCrackin

    Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and has over 3 years of professional writing experience. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

  • Sources