Most of us have heard that alcohol “kills your brain cells”. But what actually happens to your brain when you drink alcohol, and how does alcohol manage to do what it does? Here, we’ll take a quick dive into how alcohol changes your brain, looking at specific neurological functions that are impaired by alcohol consumption.
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To put some context into this, we must first understand what the brain is made up of. The human brain is made up of billions of neurons or brain cells, with some estimates indicating there are more than 100 billion of them. In addition, each neuron is linked to others through tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of connections and is able to build these pathways continuously in response to the environment.
As with other mind-altering substances, alcohol is capable of penetrating the “blood-brain barrier”. This means that it can directly interact with neurons via the bloodstream. When this happens, neurons can die through dehydration. When a neuron dies, it is no longer able to interact with the other brain cells it used to be connected with. While there are usually redundant connections, repeated alcohol use can destroy neurons through attrition.
Recently, it was thought that neurons that die off in adulthood are gone forever. However, in recent decades it was found that certain types of neurons are capable of regenerating throughout our lives. Unfortunately, this process is much slower compared to the rate of neuron destruction through typical regular drinking.
In addition, alcohol consumption is a self-reinforcing habit. In addition to damaging and destroying neurons, it can also alter the functioning of the brain. Alcohol’s ability to create euphoria and pleasure can create maladaptive connections in the brain that make the person associate alcohol with a good time. When this behavior is left unchecked, it could lead to an alcohol use disorder (AUD) that, in turn, makes it more likely the affected person will drink more often.
That said, even when a brain cell is destroyed, the surviving cells can usually make up for part of the lost function by creating new connections, a process referred to as neurogenesis. If a person stops drinking long enough, this combination of new connections and new neurons can be sufficient to achieve a full recovery. However, there will usually be lingering effects from alcohol use, such as mood swings and occasional cravings.
The entirety of the brain is affected by alcohol consumption and there are more effects than could easily be outlined in one post. That said, certain types of brain damage can easily be observed by laypersons:
These are just some of the ways alcohol can affect the brain that we can directly observe. Alcohol notably also causes damage to other organs, including the liver, heart, kidneys, and throat, just to name a few. It is also associated with a wide variety of cancers.
Alcohol use disorder is a treatable condition. Outcomes can also dramatically improve you seek help early on. Call our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers at (857) 577-8193 to discuss your options.