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Article Summary

What Does Alcohol Do To The Brain?

If you are thinking about abusing alcohol, or you have already started, it is essential that you ask yourself "what does alcohol do to the brain?" From years of scientific study, researchers have discovered that alcohol causes a wide variety of short and long-term effects to the brain.

In particular, the cognitive ability of moderate and occasional drinkers will be affected in the following ways:

  • Blackouts
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Memory impairment
  • Recklessness
  • On the other hand, alcohol affects the cognitive ability of heavy and chronic drinkers in the following ways:
  • Diminished brain size
  • Inability to think abstractly
  • Loss of attention span
  • Loss of visuospatial abilities
  • Memory loss
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Understanding Alcohol

Alcohol has long been an integral part of the social scene in the United States. So much so that the failure of the Prohibition experiment only served to demonstrate just how formidable the demand that Americans have for drinking actually is. This is in spite of the fact that advertisements continue cautioning that alcohol should only be enjoyed responsibly - a double negative because the more you enjoy alcohol, the easier it will cause you to lose your natural ability to think of ways to act more responsibly.

Today, alcohol is typically associated with many different cognitive changes - including but not limited to poor decision making, abnormal and confused thinking, as well as a general loss of all social and emotional inhibitions.

In many cases, those who use alcohol recreationally are able to recover from its adverse cognitive effects without suffering any problems in the long term. However, even if you lose control of your usual mental function in the short term, you might find that you end up suffering personal and legal troubles - troubles that might not have occurred if you had not chosen to partake of drinking.

Even so, the consumption of alcohol continues maintaining a strong foothold in more of American culture - to such an extent that it would be close to impossible to imagine how American life would be without it.

But what is alcohol? According to NIDA (abbreviation for the National Institute on Drug Abuse), ethanol or ethyl alcohol is the active ingredient in liquor, wine, beer, and other hard drinks. This chemical is colloquially known as.

In terms of chemical formula, ethanol is classified as C2H5OH or CH3CH2OH. However, its proper name should be alkanol - especially if you are thinking of its chemical accuracy.

The chemical can also be tweaked - which is why it is possible to have alcohol in different forms. To this end, the number of carbon atoms as well as the placement of the OH bond within the formula largely determines the exact type of alcoholic beverage that results. Even so, ethanol is currently the most common form of alcohol.

Alcohol is usually produced by a chemical process commonly referred to as fermentation. It happens after the fermentation of yeast - which causes sugar to break down into alcohol and carbon dioxide. When this happens, the carbon dioxide will get out of the process in the form of bubbles of gas - leaving behind a combination of ethanol and water.

This process is so precise to such an extent that if the yeast contains any air, the end result will be the creation of ethanoic acid - a chemical that is commonly used to produce vinegar.

To this end, you can rest assured that alcohol is generally produced from yeast and sugar. However, there are different sources of the sugar content - which is why there are different types of alcoholic beverages.

For example, if a company combines yeast with the sugar made from grape pulp, then it can make either white or red wine. Alternatively, if they sourced their sugar from barley, rye, or wheat, then they would create beer.

The sugars are released from the grains after they get malted, highly mashed, and finally boiled. After the sugar is ready for use, the manufacturer will typically add yeast before they begin the fermentation process.

American Alcohol Consumption

According to the NSUDH for 2013 (or the National Survey on Drug Use and Health) - a principal source of statistical information about the various patterns of substance abuse in the United States - American use alcohol in the following ways:

  • Approximately 6.3% of the entire American population above the age of 12 - or about 16.5 million Americans - used alcohol heavily
  • Close to 10.9% of the entire American population above the age of 12 reported driving a car while under the influence of alcohol at least once within the year prior to the survey
  • Close to 52.2% of all Americans above the age of 12 classified themselves as current drinkers of alcohol
  • Close to 8.7 million Americans between the ages of 12 and 20 (all of whom were under the age at which they are legally allowed to drink alcohol) reported that they currently used the substance; this number included 1.4 million of heavy drinkers and 5.4 million of binge drinkers
  • In the 30 days prior to the survey, 22.9% of the entire American population above the age of 12 - or about 60.1 million people - reported that they had engaged in binge drinking

As you can see from these statistics, alcohol is currently the most commonly used drug within the country - with marijuana coming in second place. In spite of the many known dangers arising from the excessive consumption of alcohol, however, it is clear from these numbers that there are many people who still engage in binge drinking and the heavy use of alcohol.

Additionally, in spite of the fact that alcohol clearly impairs the functioning of the brain, it is still estimated that 1 in every 10 Americans above the age of 12 decided to drive a car while intoxicated on it. This goes to show that only a few of those who engage in drunk driving are actually apprehended.

On the other hand, the field of mental health treatment has also established the fact that consuming alcohol can actually exacerbate underlying mental health issues. On the other hand, the substance abuse treatment sector has shown that people who abuse alcohol while battling mental health disorders will receive a dual diagnosis if they go for rehabilitation.

Even so, whether alcohol accompanies an underlying mental disorder or it causes the disorder in the first place is still not clearly understanding. Still, the consensus is that people who abuse alcohol while battling psychological health disorders will typically require intense treatment for both of these conditions before they can recover fully.

Alcohol And The Brain

When you take alcohol, it can initially perk you up and even help you to socialize better in a party situation. Even so, it primarily acts to depress the central nervous system. You can witness these depressant effects in people who developed poor limb coordination and slurred speech after drinking for a period.

Even though it is easy to observe some of these outward signs of alcohol intoxication, it might not be quite as easy for you to understand just how drinking affects the deeper levels of your body - such as the neurological system.

That said, alcohol is a chemical that primarily acts on the main sites that receive the chemical messengers (or neurotransmitter) dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. When alcohol acts on the glutamate and GABA sites, it causes some of the physiological effects that are commonly associated with its abuse - such as slurred speech and slowed movements.

On the other hand, the activity of alcohol on the dopamine sites inside the reward centers of the brain will produce the sometimes intense pleasurable effects that will motivate you to continue drinking.

According to an article published in Psychology Today, the degree of the impact of alcohol on your neurological functioning, behavior, and mood will largely depend - at least in part - on whether your level of BAC (blood alcohol content) is decreasing or increasing.

This is because alcohol also acts to stimulate your system, but when you taper off your consumption, it will serve as a sedative. To this end, the BAC will fluctuate, which accounts for why people go from being highly active to eventually needing help with some basics like walking.

Apart from whether your level of blood alcohol content is decreasing or increasing, many other factors can influence the impact of alcohol on the functioning of your brain. These factors include:

  • How often you drink
  • The age at which you started drinking alcohol
  • The general condition of your health
  • The number of years you have been drinking
  • The volume of alcohol you drink
  • Whether or not you have a family history of alcohol abuse and alcoholism
  • Whether you were exposed to alcoholic beverages when you were still in the fetal stage before birth
  • Your age, genetic factors, and sex

While thinking about the adverse consequences of alcohol use and abuse, many people only think about the adverse public effects of drinking - such as getting involved in altercations that are induced by alcohol or getting into car accidents.

However, you have to know that when you drink, you are mainly playing a dangerous game of roulette - mostly if you choose to consume alcohol heavily. This is because alcohol affects the brain in many uncertain ways - both in the short and in the long run. Additionally, if you mix alcohol with another drug, you are more likely to suffer even more severe risks and adverse effects.

Consider the following:

1. Occasional Drinkers

Alcohol tends to produce some short-term effects in occasional drinkers - especially after they have already had their first drink. For starters, taking a few drinks could cause memory impairment - a condition that will increasingly worsen as you continue drinking.

On the other hand, if you drink too much - particularly without eating anything - could cause you to blackout. Even so, you might recover from the blackout without suffering any lasting problems in your cognitive functioning.

However, there are many other dangers linked with acute intoxication. For instance, if you get into an incident that involves alcohol, you are likely to suffer ongoing problems with the law - such as attending court, paying fines, and meeting treatment and educational requirements before you are let off the hook.

Last but not least, alcohol intoxication might increase your likelihood of engaging in reckless activity - including driving, vandalism, unprotected sex, and violent altercations and fights - even if you are just an occasional drinker.

2. Moderate Drinkers

According to the CDC (a common abbreviation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), there are some Dietary Guidelines. According to these guidelines, moderate drinkers are those who consume one drink a day (for women) or two drinks a day (for men).

In spite of the ongoing extensive news reports showing the positive health benefits associated with moderate drinking, this is still not a reason for you to start drinking more.

This is because even consuming moderately comes with some negative consequences. It can, for instance, increase your risk of developing breast cancer, as well as causing car accidents, drowning, falling, and being involved in violent altercations and fights.

Additionally, just because you only decide to drink moderately does not necessarily insulate you from suffering the adverse cognitive impairment that is commonly linked with consuming alcohol - or the dangerous consequences that are likely to result from this impairment.

3. Chronic and Heavy Drinking

People who drink heavily - particularly in the long term - are unlike moderate and occasional drinkers. This is particularly true with respect to their risk of developing severe deficits in the functioning of their brain - deficits that might continue even after they attain sobriety.

In particular, you will no longer develop cognitive problems as a result of drinking alcohol. Rather, they will arise from the brain damage that your drinking causes. In short, therefore, abusing alcohol in the long term could negatively impact the hard wiring of your brain - to such an extent that even when you stop drinking these problems persist.

In other cases, chronic and heavy drinking could directly cause severe damage to your brain. In others, the brain damage will occur as a result of overall poor health - such as liver disease - caused by your drinking.

The NIAAA (or the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) also reports that most of the people who consume alcohol heavily in the long term might end up suffering mild to moderate impairments of the functioning of their brains - as well as smaller brain size.

In particular, alcohol might cause them to suffer impairments linked to their natural ability to think clearly and abstractly - as well as in their ability to readily perceive the location of objects in 2 and 3-dimensional spaces or remember this location (also known as visuospatial abilities).

Additionally, chronic alcohol abuse is now associated with numerous brain disorders. For instance, research shows that close to 80% of all people who use alcohol chronically have thiamine deficiencies. Some of these people will also progress to an even more severe brain disorder like WKS (or Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome). Some of the symptoms typical of WKS include persistent problems with learning ability and memory, impaired muscle coordination, paralysis of the nerves of the eyes, and confusion.

Luckily, abstinence from alcohol could potentially reverse some of these symptoms of cognitive impairment. Studies have even shown that former alcoholics who undergo medical detox end up exhibiting mild - albeit highly significant - improvement in cognitive ability - particularly in the abilities that are linked to short-term memory, problem-solving abilities, and visuospatial tasks.

Ongoing abstinence from alcohol abuse over several months to a year could also see your cognitive skills continuing to improve - including your attention span, working memory, and visuospatial abilities. Additionally, research has shown that the volume of your brain could potentially increase with ongoing abstinence.

Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain

Have you ever wondered "what does alcohol do to the brain?" Well, new research now shows that the damage that alcohol causes to the brain goes over and beyond a mild headache, brain fog, and the hangover that you might experience after a night of excessive drinking.

In particular, alcohol causes profound mental effects while drinking heavily could potentially lead you to suffer some dreaded diseases of the brain. Further, alcohol could increase your risk of experiencing a complete rewiring of your brain - while also increasing your risk of suffering depression among other conditions.

The effects of alcohol on the brain and cognitive function are also more complicated than you might think. For instance, it is now well known that drinking excessively comes with detrimental bodily effects. Even so, people who drink heavily might run the risk of developing an alcohol addiction as well as some of the symptoms of early dementia. Using alcohol can also shorten your life by close to 20 years - with the leading cause of death linked to the adverse effects of dementia.

But what is alcoholism? Essentially, you could be said to drink heavily if you take three drinks a day (for women) or 5 drinks a day (for men). Some of the factors that could determine the effects of alcohol on your brain include:

  • Exposure to alcohol in the prenatal stage
  • Family history
  • Gender
  • General status of your health status
  • Genetic background
  • How much you drink
  • How often you drink
  • Level of education
  • The age at which you started drinking
  • Your current age

Symptoms Of Alcoholism

You might also want to consider the symptoms of alcoholism while trying to understand the answers to the "what does alcohol do to the brain?" question. In particular, alcohol abuse causes a wide variety of symptoms, including:

1. Physical Symptoms

  • Poor coordination
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Slurred speech

2. Psychological Symptoms

  • Impaired thinking
  • Memory loss

3. Behavioral Symptoms

  • Addictive behavior
  • Depression
  • Engaging in risky behaviors

On the other hand, if you decide to stop drinking or reduce your usual number of alcoholic beverages, then you are highly likely to go into withdrawal mode. Some of the withdrawal symptoms of alcoholism include:

  • Anxiety
  • Delirium tremens that might be accompanied by auditory and visual hallucinations
  • Nausea
  • Shakiness
  • Sweating

But exactly how does alcohol affect the brain? Essentially, when you drink, your liver will break alcohol down into its non-toxic byproducts. However, if you engage in excessive alcohol consumption, your liver might not be able to keep up with the high demands that are required. As such, most of the alcohol will remain in your bloodstream. This goes to show that the adverse effects of alcohol on the brain will largely depend on your level of blood alcohol concentration.

To this end, an increase in blood alcohol concentration will interact with your brain - right through the barrier between the brain and the blood. This means that when alcohol gets into the CNS (or the central nervous system), it will cause behavioral changes. This is because it will act on particular brain regions - particularly those that are susceptible to such chemical changes.

Brain Parts Affected By Alcohol

Alcohol also affects different parts and regions of the brain, primarily including:

1. Mesolimbic Pathway

When you drink alcohol excessively, it will stimulate the reward or mesolimbic pathway of the brain - leading to the release of dopamine. This will cause an intense feeling of pleasure.

This is the primary pathway of the brain that involves addiction. As a result, if you stimulate it too many times, you will need to continue taking the chemicals that caused such stimulation to experience any form of pleasure.

This means that when you repeatedly activate this pathway - such as through drinking - it may be covered by glue that is mesh-like. This could make it difficult for you to break old synapses or form new ones. This is one of the reasons why it might be so hard for you to overcome your addiction - since you would have developed profoundly ingrained patterns that the brain continues holding together.

2. Prefrontal Cortex or Frontal Lobe

This is the region of the brain that is involved with impulse inhibition, social conduct, problem-solving, judgment, goal setting, planning, motivation, and decision making. According to recent neuropathological studies, alcoholics tend to experience a significant reduction in the total number of neurons found in this cortex. Additionally, they may experience a reducing in the overall mass and size of the brain - especially in comparison to non-alcoholics.

When the prefrontal cortex or frontal lobe is damaged as a result of ongoing alcohol abuse, you might also experience adverse changes in your emotional state and personality.

3. Hippocampus

This part of the brain is found in the mesolimbic system. It is typically involved with emotion, spatial navigation, and motivation. It is also crucial in the formation of your memories. Other studies also show that it plays a role in anxiety and fear because it is among the few sites where neurogenesis occurs within the adult brain - the process through which the brain forms new cells from the stem cells.

To this end, when you increase the doses of alcohol you take, this might disrupt the formation of new cells in the brain. This might lead to deficits in specific areas of the brain - such as the hippocampus. As a direct result, you might experience decrease memory and learning ability.

Since hippocampal neurogenesis is so resilient - however, it can recover if you abstain for at least 30 days. Even so, you might still be vulnerable to relapse back to your old drinking habits.

4. Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is part of your limbic system. As such, it is connected to many different systems - which is why it is involved in emotion, hormone regulation, temperature control, eating, drinking, regulatory functions, memory, and learning.

If you damage the hypothalamus in the long term by drinking alcohol excessively, you might suffer amnesia and memory deficits.

5. Cerebellum

This part of the brain comprises close to 10% of the total weight of your brain. As such, it contains close to 50% of all the neurons in it. Although it is small, the cerebellum is also quite mighty. For instance, it coordinates eye movement, balance, and voluntary movement. It also integrates with the circuitry of the brain for emotion and cognition.

If you abuse alcohol, you might experience atrophy in the white matter of this part of your brain.

6. Amygdala

The Amygdala is located in the temporal lobe. As such, it is connected to the prefrontal cortex, the thalamus, and the hippocampus. It is also responsible for mediating emotions like anxiety, rage, fear, and love and can help you identify and escape dangerous situations.

More On The Adverse Effects Of Alcohol

Apart from the impact of the consumption of alcohol on the various parts of the brain, you can also be sure that it will also affect the chemistry of your brain. It does this by effectively altering the total number of neurotransmitters in all the different segments of your mind.

Neurotransmitters are considered to be the brain's chemical messengers. As such, they are responsible for the transmission of signals in the CNS before extending all through the body.

To this end, if you drink heavily, these neurotransmitters will be changed in their various segments of the brain. As a direct result, these changes could cause additional changes in your motor functions and behavior.

Additionally, these neurotransmitters are either inhibitory (or they decrease the brain's electrical activity) or excitatory (or they increase the electrical activity of the brain). As such, they are affected in different ways by the consumption of alcohol.

Even so, drinking might leave an impact on:

a) NMDA and GABA Receptors

Alcohol can slow your brain down. It does this by effectively binding itself to the NMDA and GABA receptors in the brain. This results in a slowing down that could lead to decreased memory, tiredness, and slurred words.

b) Dopamine

Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter. If you drink excessively, alcohol will increase the level of dopamine within the mesolimbic pathway - which mediates the reward circuitry of the brain and causes you to feel good.

c) Norepinephrine

In the same way, drinking will cause your mind to release norepinephrine as well as cause temporary increases in the levels of dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline. This will create the stress-free feeling familiar in party situations.

However, abusing alcohol chronically could potentially cause the neurons that are responsible for releasing norepinephrine to decrease. This could lead to a variety of adverse effects on memory, learning, information processing, and attention span.

d) Glutamate

This excitatory neurotransmitter might be blocked from binding to NMDA receptors when you drink. When this happens, you might experience depressant effects in your brain.

e) Serotonin

Last but not least, alcohol consumption affects the levels of serotonin in the brain. This is an excitatory neurotransmitter chiefly involved in the reward and pleasure effects of your mesolimbic pathway.

According to recent studies, reducing the serotonergic cells as a result of abusing alcohol chronically could lead to alterations in sleep, appetite, thinking, and mood. After alcohol increases these excitatory neurotransmitters initially, the stimulation will wear off - leading to a buildup of NMDA and GABA - which are inhibitory neurotransmitters. This causes the faint, subdued, and depressed afterglow that arises after you have been binge drinking.

The last answer to the "what does alcohol do to the brain?" question involves the syndromes that are commonly linked to the excessive consumption of alcohol. In particular, recent research now shows that drinking heavily for a period of time could potentially cause:

  • Alcohol-related dementia
  • Cerebellar Syndrome and Anterior Superior Vernal Atrophy
  • Decrease in thiamine (or vitamin B1)
  • Decreases in neuronal density
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy
  • Korsakoffs Psychosis
  • Reduced glucose metabolism
  • Reduction in the volumes of regional blood flow
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy

To this end, you can be sure that although alcohol might initially make you feel good about your life in general, it comes with many adverse effects on the brain. This is why you might want to consider going for addiction treatment from an accredited rehabilitation center - to reverse these effects and get your brain back to its healthy condition.

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