It’s well-known that alcohol affects the brain. After all, most people have experienced feeling euphoric and excited, confused, or even aggressive while drinking—not to mention slurred speech and delayed reaction time. But exactly how does alcohol affect the brain and central nervous system?
In this post, we’ll share everything you need to know about your brain on alcohol, including short- and long-term effects, how it makes you drunk, how alcohol affects the brain and behavior, whether it kills brain cells, and if there’s hope for recovery from alcohol-related brain damage.
How Alcohol Affects Your Brain Short-Term
Ethanol, the primary ingredient in alcoholic beverages, is also the ingredient that causes drunkenness. It enters your bloodstream as soon as you take a sip, and it reaches your brain after about five minutes. You can begin feeling the effects within 10 minutes. As alcohol impacts the various areas of the brain—each responsible for different functions—it begins to produce the symptoms of intoxication.
At first, these symptoms feel pleasant. Because your brain is releasing more “feel good” chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, you’ll experience feelings of euphoria (a combination of happiness and excitement). But if you continue drinking and your brain absorbs more alcohol, you’ll start to experience physical symptoms. These may include slurred speech, blurred vision, lack of control, slower reaction time, impaired judgment, and confusion or trouble “thinking straight.”
Drink more, and your cerebellum, which helps with coordination, is affected. You may have trouble walking or standing. Blackouts, stupor, slowed breathing, coma, and even death can result.
Your brain plays a major role in drunkenness, but it doesn’t end there—your brain also plays a part in hangovers. As the brain attempts to rebalance itself following a night of drinking, dopamine and serotonin levels plummet, and many people are left feeling anxious and restless. And you may find that the lingering effects of alcohol continue to make coordination, concentration, and decision-making difficult.
What Part of the Brain Is Affected by Alcohol First?
When it comes to the act of consuming alcohol, it’s unclear whether one area of the brain is affected before the others. But in the long run, the cerebellum is the area of the brain most frequently damaged by alcohol.2 Damage to the cerebellum can lead to difficulties with balance and learning new words or skills. The cerebellum is also involved in emotional processing.3
The frontal lobes are also especially vulnerable to alcohol-related damage, and the brain changes in this region can be most prominent as people with alcohol use disorder age.4 This region of the brain manages reasoning, voluntary muscle movements, learning and recalling information, and executive functions like attention, judgment, problem-solving, creativity, impulse control, and emotional regulation.
Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?
A commonly asked question about drinking is, “Does alcohol kill brain cells?” In fact, the idea that alcohol “kills” brain cells is a myth. But alcohol does damage brain cells (otherwise known as neurons), causing losses to their structure and function in multiple areas of the brain.5
Heavy, regular drinking also makes it more difficult for the brain to create neurons (a process known as neurogenesis), which is essential to learning and memory. And it impacts cognition, resulting in a progressive loss of control over drinking and contributing to alcohol use disorder.
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Long-Term Impacts of Alcohol on the Brain
Alcohol can affect the brain far beyond a night of drinking, especially if you drink heavily over time. So, what do you need to know about alcohol and brain damage?
Heavy drinking can shrink and impair multiple areas of the brain that are responsible for essential functions. And as mentioned above, heavy alcohol use can damage neurons, make it difficult for the brain to generate new neurons, and impair cognition, which leads to a loss of control over drinking. Additionally, it causes deficiencies in the fibers (white matter) that carry information between brain cells (gray matter).
Other alcohol-related risks to the brain include damage to various brain regions, dementia, and wet brain.
Damage to Various Brain Regions
Alcohol can shrink the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and reasoning. The amount of shrinkage is directly linked to how much alcohol an individual regularly consumes.6 Over time, heavy alcohol use also damages the frontal lobes, which contribute to learning and memory, and the cerebellum, which controls movement and coordination.7
High-level alcohol consumption (more than 14 units of alcohol per week) is linked to an increase in dementia risk. This risk increases linearly, based on the amount of alcohol a person drinks.8 The term “dementia” covers a wide range of medical conditions (including Alzheimer’s disease) which lead to loss of memory, language, problem-solving, and other thinking abilities. The effects of dementia are severe enough to interfere with daily life.
Wet brain, formally known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a serious brain disease that occurs in two stages. Symptoms may include mental confusion, poor coordination, involuntary eye movements, low blood pressure, nerve issues, delirium, severe memory issues, and coma. Although the disease only affects one to three percent of the general population, it impacts closer to 12 percent of people who suffer from an alcohol use disorder.9
Can You Recover From Alcohol-Related Brain Damage?
When it comes to alcohol and brain damage, is the damage caused by alcohol permanent, or can your brain repair itself when you quit drinking?
Fortunately, MRI studies have demonstrated that some structural brain changes are reversible with abstinence from alcohol, along with the resulting functional changes.10 These reversible changes include damage to white and gray matter, shrinkage, and wet brain. In animal models, new brain cells and neurons can form when abstaining from alcohol, suggesting that the brain can heal and grow.11
So, if you’re worried that you or a loved one has experienced irreversible damage to the brain, there is hope. With a healthy lifestyle, including abstaining from alcohol, the brain has the ability to repair itself from alcohol-related damage.
If you need support to cut back on alcohol or quit, Ria Health can help. Through an innovative telemedicine app, we put the tools and resources you need for recovery right at your fingertips. Learn more about how it works, or get in touch with a compassionate member of our team today.