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How Alcohol Affects the Brain

By Jenny Hunt, Palm Partners Recovery Center

March 29, 2012

Blurred vision, loss of memory, slurred speech: clearly alcohol affects the brain. Some of these impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops. Other times, alcohol affects the brain long after drinking stops. So how does alcohol affect the brain? Are there factors which contribute to the way alcohol affects the brain?

Alcohol affects the brain in several different ways. The main way that alcohol affects the brain is by depressing the central nervous system and contracting brain tissue.  It does this by interfering with nerve cell communication in the brain.

When alcohol reaches the brain, it interferes with the communication between nerve cells. Alcohol affects the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that travel in between nerve cells and transmit the signals throughout the body that control thought processes, behavior and emotion.

Neurotransmitters can either be excitatory or inhibitory. Excitatory neurotransmitters increase brain electrical activity. Inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease brain electrical activity. Alcohol affects the brain by increasing levels of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Also, alcohol affects the brain by decreasing levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Both of these actions cause the sluggish movements and slurred speech observed in someone that has been drinking. Alcohol also affects the brain by increasing the chemical dopamine, which causes a positive effect in the brain’s reward center. This effect is responsible for the pleasurable feeling that people get from drinking alcohol.

Also, alcohol affects the brain by killing brain cells, and brain cells do not regenerate. This is why heavy drinking can have long term consequences. Heavy drinking affects the brain in different ways depending on how much is consumed and the time period over which heavy drinking occurs. It can range from minor lapses in memory to a permanent and debilitating condition- known as “wet brain” -that requires lifetime custodial care. Wet brain is the common term for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. It results from a thiamine deficiency, and is usually secondary to heavy, long term drinking. Up to 80 percent of alcoholics have a deficiency in thiamine. Wet brain is irreversible and results in vision changes, ataxia and impaired memory.

A common manifestation of the way alcohol affects the brain are lapses in memory.  Binge drinking alcohol can cause memory loss similar to amnesia. These periods of alcohol-related amnesia are generally referred to as blackouts. Blackouts are periods of time when the drinker is completely conscious, having conversations and performing sometimes amazing feats, but later they have absolutely no memory of the events that transpired.

There are several factors that determine or contribute to how alcohol affects the brain. Women and those of Asian descent seem to be more sensitive to the way alcohol affects the brain. Also, drinking on an empty stomach and mixing alcohol with aspirin seems to increase the negative effects of alcohol on the brain.

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