Alcohol has a clear effect on the brain. This effect is both why people drink it and why it can be so harmful. To understand these effects, it’s important to understand the different parts of the brain and alcohol’s impact on them.
The brain consists of several different sections that control different aspects of what makes you human. They include:
When a person ingests alcohol, it quickly enters the bloodstream, through the bloodstream, it enters the brain. In the brain, alcohol affects neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that either increase or decrease brain activity through electrical impulses. Alcohol addiction, unlike addictions to many other drugs, affects many different neurotransmitters at the same time, demonstrating why recovery can be so difficult for someone with Alcohol Use Disorder.
With regards to why many people associate alcohol with becoming more social, Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the answer. GABA helps rid the user of inhibitions and slows down the brain. Dopamine, Glutamate, and Serotonin stimulate pleasure and activate the brain’s reward center, giving it the signal that alcohol, like food, is good for your well-being. But serotonin and glutamate levels drop the more you drink, and as you consume more it can leave you feeling depressed.
The more intoxicated you get; the more areas of the brain are compromised by the neurochemical reactions. That’s why it’s fairly obvious to tell the difference between someone who has had three drinks and someone who has had twelve. Alcohol affects the brain in many ways.
What is the Frist Brain Function Affected by Alcohol?
The first area compromised is the Cerebral Cortex, which causes confusion and lowers inhibitions. For example, jokes start to seem funnier, and a user may be less afraid to talk to new people or do something else that is out of their comfort zone. Next, it hits the cerebellum, altering movement and balance. This is why people who are intoxicated may be more likely to fall or have slurred speech.
If the user continues to drink, the hypothalamus and amygdala become affected. This may make it harder to control emotions, and some people may even injure themselves and not realize it until the next day. At this point of consumption, the user can be described as someone who is acting on animal instincts, since all parts of the brain that regulate human reasoning have gone offline.
If a user continues to drink at this point, it may affect the brain stem, which induces sleep and can cause irregular breathing and even seizures. This is how even one binge event can lead to an untimely death. Fortunately, most stop drinking or pass out before this level of impairment.
While these impairments are not permanent and recede as the alcohol leaves the body, alcohol can also cause long-term damage to the brain in cases of continued habitual use or use by individuals under the age of 21. Read more about this next week.
Alcohol consumption, in most cases, does not cause permanent defects in reasoning, memory, or other forms of cognition. After a couple of years of sobriety, this functioning returns to normal. However, there are two main exceptions, when long-term damage can be severe and life-altering. Two of these permanent problems include Wernicke’s Korsakoff Syndrome and Hepatic Encephalopathy.
More commonly known as “wet brain,” this syndrome is caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. It happens to people who are long-term alcohol-dependent because alcohol blocks the absorption of thiamine. This syndrome arrives in two stages. The first is Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which causes several serious neurological problems, such as muscle spasms, paralysis of the eye muscles, and general confusion. During this stage, the disorder can be reversed with thiamine supplementation. But, if no one intervenes, it progresses quickly into Korsakaff psychosis, which is incurable.
At this stage, the individual experiences permanent memory loss and confabulation (creation of new but untrue memories), learning problems, hallucinations, unsteadiness on his or her feet, and dementia. It’s ideal to catch the disorder before it gets this far, but, sadly, this is not often the reality.
To prevent either stage from happening, problem drinkers need to watch their vitamin B intake.
Hepatic Encephalopathy has nothing to do with vitamin intake. Instead, it has to do with the liver. When the liver can no longer filter toxins out of the blood, these toxins – like manganese and ammonia – circulate through the body and damage brain tissue. The damage to the brain can slow down reaction time and create general apathy. Sometimes people with hepatic encephalopathy appear drunk even when sober, due to slurred speech and behaviors that lie out of social norms, or even norms for them before the damage occurred. In advanced stages, the brain shuts down completely, leaving the person in a coma. Note that liver failure has to occur first before this disorder becomes symptomatic.
While heavy drinking constricts blood vessels and can shrink the brain, one type of brain cells appears to be permanently damaged once the person achieves sobriety: the gray cells in the Parietal Lobe, the part of the brain in charge of spatial processing. Even years after he or she stops drinking, a dependent drinker can have trouble figuring out how things relate to each other, such as judging distances on a map or putting a puzzle together.
If you or a loved one are concerned about their brain being permanently affected by heavy drinking, there are many solutions available to help with lasting recovery from Alcohol Use Disorder or addiction. One of these tools is Soberlink. Soberlink allows use to document sobriety in real-time with a discreet breathalyzer that sends results automatically to the user’s recovery circle. This type of accountability serves as a reminder to the user of effects, such as the ones to the brain, that is occurring due to heavy alcohol consumption. Staying connected in a non-invasive way can help your brain heal over time before something permanently damaging takes place.
Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.