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Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain

Alcohol abuse, akin to other substance misuse, can have severe and detrimental effects on the brain. Whether one is an occasional or heavy drinker, both may encounter problems attributed to alcohol’s impact on the brain. Alcohol not only harms brain cells but also alters the structures and communication pathways within the brain. In severe instances, alcohol abuse can result in brain shrinkage, alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), and premature onset of dementia.

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How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Any amount of alcohol can negatively affect brain health. Whether you drink occasionally or you engage in consistent heavy drinking, alcohol has the potential to interrupt essential brain functions and damage brain cells.

Alcohol use also affects neurotransmitters, which are essential chemical messengers within the brain. Alcohol can disrupt neurotransmitters related to memory or release neurotransmitters that cause the brain to be flooded by feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.

In a recent study from the University of Oxford, the brains of over 25,000 people who consumed alcohol showed an effect on brain gray matter and parts of the brain vital for information processing.

The study only reinforces the warning that there is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption, especially for the brain.

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What Parts of The Brain Are Affected By Alcohol Abuse?

Areas of the brain affected by alcohol consumption include:

  • Cerebral Cortex: The largest area of the brain, responsible for consciousness, memory, problem-solving, thinking, learning, emotions, and sensory functions. Alcohol slows down these processes and leads to poor judgment.
  • Hippocampus: A complex structure deep that is believed to be crucial for storing long-term memories, regulating emotional responses, spatial processing, and navigation. Alcohol can make it hard to remember things, and when alcohol damages this area, it may be hard to learn and to hold on to new knowledge.
  • Hypothalamus: A small area in the center of the brain that assists in producing hormones that regulate hunger, body temperature, heart rate, and the sleep-wake cycle. When alcohol reaches the hypothalamus, it can cause an increase in blood pressure, thirst, and urge to urinate and a decrease in body temperature and heart rate.
  • Medulla: The lowest part of your brain that connects your brain to your spinal cord, responsible for managing automatic processes like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and more. Considering how essential these functions are, alcohol’s effect on the medulla can be fatal.
  • Central Nervous System: A system controlled by the brain and the spinal cord that carries messages between the brain and the nerves throughout the body. When alcohol affects the central nervous system, it can slow thinking, speaking, and movement.
  • Cerebellum: An area at the back of the brain that handles muscle control, balance, and movement, as well as helping with memory and language processing. Alcohol affecting the cerebellum can cause serious issues with balance, coordination, and fine motor skills like walking or driving.

Initial Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

From the moment alcohol enters the bloodstream, it is sent to the brain and begins wreaking havoc on many of the brain’s basic functions.

The initial effects of alcohol on the brain include:

  • Lowered inhibition
  • Poor judgment
  • Sleepiness
  • Impairment of critical thinking skills
  • Shifts in mood and concentration
  • Slow reaction times and reduced motor control
  • Memory loss
  • Increased risk of conflict, violence, risky behavior, and motor vehicle crashes

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

While drinking and even for up to a few days after drinking, certain unpleasant symptoms may arise. When a person drinks large amounts of alcohol, many of the common health problems occur due to the effects on the brain.

Short-term effects of alcohol on the brain may include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Risk of blackouts
  • Risk of alcohol overdose or alcohol poisoning, which can lead to brain damage
  • High blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing
  • Headaches and migraines

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse on the Brain

Although moderate drinking is viewed as safe, even moderate use can lead to long-term effects on the brain. Heavy drinkers who abuse alcohol for long periods are at the highest risk for alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) and life-threatening nutrient deficiencies that affect the brain.

Individuals with alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction are at even higher risk of brain damage due to alcohol misuse and alcohol withdrawal.

Long-term effects of alcohol on the brain may include:

  • Difficulty creating new memories or learning new things
  • Mood and personality changes
  • Risk of head injuries that result in brain damage
  • Brain shrinkage or loss of brain volume
  • Deficiencies in the fibers (white matter) that carry information between brain cells (gray matter)
  • Brain cell death
  • Changes in blood flow patterns in the brain
  • Permanent changes in brain structure, especially in the developing brains of young people
  • Alterations of neurons
  • Eye twitches due to thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B-1), which can increase the risk of developing early dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
  • Seizures from alcohol withdrawal
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Alcohol’s Effects on Mental Health

Alcohol consumption can worsen mental health and existing mental illnesses. Alcohol may make you feel better in the moment because alcohol prevents the reabsorption of feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.

Research shows that consuming alcoholic drinks can worsen depression in the long term. Many people use alcohol to cope with anxiety because it’s a depressant that suppresses the central nervous system, where anxiety is thought to originate from.

If your body begins to rely on alcohol for this “calming effect,” it may immediately activate “fight or flight” mode when not drinking. In addition, many depression and anxiety medications are not safe to mix with alcohol and can lead to serious health risks.

Alcohol can worsen conditions that feature psychosis, hallucinations, and delusions. Psychosis can also occur in addicts experiencing alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol can also worsen thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

How Does Alcohol Consumption Become Addiction?

Alcohol has a blunting effect on the mind and body, usually blocking pain and stress and making you feel happy and confident.

Alcohol consumption leads to higher levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, providing a rush of pleasurable feelings that some people want to feel again and again.

Over time, casual alcohol consumption becomes addiction and then dependence. For heavy drinkers or people with alcohol use disorder, the brain becomes dependent on alcohol content to increase levels of dopamine and serotonin.

When addicts try to stop drinking or cut down on drinking, the brain often can’t function without alcohol, which leads to withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening in some cases and may require medical detoxification to ensure safety through the withdrawal process.

Get Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse can have serious consequences for brain health, as well as other grave health problems. Getting help for a drinking problem can help you or a loved one avoid the many dangerous risk factors that come with alcohol addiction.

If you’re ready to quit drinking, now is the time to seek treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about what treatment may work best for you. You can also check out SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) to see what alcohol addiction treatment centers are available in your area.

FAQs About Alcohol’s Effect on the Brain

Are women more susceptible to alcohol’s effects on the brain?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, research shows that alcohol abuse produces brain damage more quickly in women than in men. It’s believed that this is due to biological differences that lead most women to absorb more alcohol and take longer to metabolize it than men.

Does drinking alcohol kill your brain cells?

Yes, it can. Alcohol reaches the brain as soon as it enters the bloodstream. Because alcohol causes inflammation, it can damage brain cells even from one glass of wine or beer. Whether you drink occasionally or are a heavy drinker, you may experience brain cell death from alcohol consumption.

Can binge drinking cause brain damage?

Yes. Many studies show that binge drinking can lead to brain damage. Binge drinking is one of the most dangerous forms of alcohol consumption and can lead to alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), and nutrient deficiencies that can lead to developing dementia.

How does alcohol affect your mental health?

Yes, it does. Alcohol has been proven to worsen mental health conditions. Despite how positive you may feel while drinking alcohol, many people experience worsened depression and anxiety after the effects of alcohol wear off.

Can alcohol cause mental illness?

It can. Consuming alcohol can lead to alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder, which is a mental disorder. However, it’s hard to say if alcohol can cause other mental illnesses or if alcohol’s effects only highlight co-occurring illnesses.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome
  10. Villines, Z. (2019, July 3). Alcohol Brain Damage Symptoms. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325644

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