Alcohol causes major damage to the human brain. It is the most widely used drug around the world, and although legal in the United States, alcohol remains the leading cause of many preventable physical and mental illnesses and deaths.
What Does Alcohol Do to the Brain?
Drugs are categorized by the way their chemicals target the brain. Brain cells communicate with one another based on various neurotransmitters that are each responsible for different activity.
Norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter, increases heart rate, alertness, and happiness, and decreases blood circulation and pain. Drugs that mimic norepinephrine tell the brain to perform those functions when there is not a physical need to do so, as is the case when the brain and body naturally communicate to accomplish one of those functions. Stimulant drugs, like amphetamines, cocaine, and pharmaceutically created antidepressants, alter the user’s brain with chemicals that resemble norepinephrine.
GABA, another neurotransmitter, decreases anxiety, alertness, memory, and muscle tension and induces sleepiness, which is mimicked by alcohol, barbiturates (Nembutal and Mebaral), and benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan.)
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that increases happiness and fullness, and decreases pain. Drugs like amphetamines, cocaine, LSD, mushrooms, and SSRIs (pharmaceutical antidepressants like Zoloft and Prozac.)
Alcohol falls into the depressant category because of its resemblance to GABA, but also shows qualities of a stimulant via norepinephrine and serotonin imitation.
Physical Impairments From Alcohol
When alcohol is taking its toll on the user’s brain, there are physical symptoms that damage has occurred. After just a few drinks, you may have seen the following list in yourself or someone else who is drinking.
- Difficulty walking
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Slowed reaction times
- Impaired memory
- Suppressed respiration
When alcohol has started damaging the brain, these symptoms can be occurring even when the person is not drinking at the time.
Psychological Impact of Alcohol
Drinking alcohol affects the human body and brain. The impairments to the brain include altered mood, behavior, arousal, and neuropsychology, the neurotransmitter impact.
Factors That Influence Alcohol’s Impact on the Brain
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, there are several factors determine the extent of damage alcohol can be causing a certain individual. (The National Institute of Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism are subdivisions of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)
- How much alcohol is consumed during each drinking episode
- How often a person drinks, meaning daily drinking versus weekend binges
- The age at which he or she first began drinking
- How long he or she has been drinking
- The person’s current age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism
- Whether or not the person is at risk already as the result of prenatal alcohol exposure
- His or her general medical health status
The Progression to Addiction
There are four stages on the road to addiction, and brain damage can occur at any of the four levels of alcohol consumption:
1. Experimentation or Social Use
3. Physical Dependence
Brain Dysfunction and Alcoholism
Prefrontal Cortex, Temporal Cortex, and Cerebellum Damage
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, rational thought, and aggressive behavior. Alcohol directly decreases the activity in this area of brain, making it clear why people’s reactions are much slower while intoxicated and why drinking can make generally calm people violent when drunk.
The temporal cortex region of the brain is home to the hippocampus, the area that forms new memories. Blacking out while drinking is from direct impairment of the temporal cortex.
Alcohol decreases energy consumption in the brain’s cerebellum, making it hard to walk a straight line or operate heavy machinery while intoxicated. Field sobriety tests have been created to gauge the damage done to the cerebellum while drinking.
This syndrome, caused by a deficiency in thiamine, also called Vitamin B1, is common among alcoholics. The vitamin is needed for healthy functioning of all tissues in the body, including the brain, and without it alcoholics experience mental confusion and difficulty with muscle coordination. The cerebellum has been damaged when the individual is diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.
When a brain dysfunction has been diagnosed as the direct result of alcohol consumption, the first step is to stop drinking completely. After about a year of abstinence, most people see improvement in cognitive functioning. Various forms of therapy, plus medical attention is needed to start healing the damage done to the brain.
If you feel your alcohol use has caused brain dysfunction, an assessment can gauge what level of care you need.
Blog Post By: Jared Friedman