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How Does Alcohol Change The Brain?

Close up shot of indecisive male with ginger hair holding glass of beer in his hands, looking at cold beverage with doubtful expression, can't decide whether drink it or not, keeping low carb diet

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.

If you believe that you or someone you know has a problem with drugs or alcohol, please get in touch with a qualified mental health professional. You can call our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers to find evidence-based alcohol treatment programs in the Greater Boston area and the rest of New England.

Why Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

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.

Is This Damage Permanent?

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.

What Parts of the Brain are Affected?

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:

  • Neurons These are the individual cells that comprise the brain. Alcohol can reach these cells through the blood, displacing their water content, shriveling them up, and damaging them, possibly destroying them. Regular drinking is known to decrease brain size over time, likely for this reason.
  • Blood vessels Alcohol dilates blood vessels at low levels. However, in higher doses, it can do the opposite, constricting them and increasing blood pressure. This can lead to migraines and increase the likelihood of further damage to the brain as it struggles to get oxygenated through the blood.
  • Hippocampus This is the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory. Damage to this area is the reason people may experience memory loss when consuming alcohol.
  • Medulla –This part controls heartbeats, breathing, and other involuntary functions. Alcohol can cause these functions to slow down when it interferes with the medulla’s brain cells. This can be fatal in cases where a person has a heart problem or has difficulty breathing. This may be further compounded by polydrug use.
  • Prefrontal cortex – This part of the brain controls higher functioning, feelings of reward, and inhibition. Effects here are the most immediately observable and include a loosening of inhibitions. Because it is also partly responsible for the brain’s reward mechanism, this is also the part that is often most altered when a person has an alcohol use disorder.
  • Cerebellum – This is the part regulating movement. Interference in this area results in difficulty making complex movements, such as when walking. As with the prefrontal cortex, alcohol’s effects on this part are also easy to observe.
  • Frontal lobe – This part controls emotions and decision-making. Damage here can make a person more argumentative or affectionate.

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.

Find Help for AUD in Boston, MA

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.

Resources

  1. Oscar-Berman, M., & Marinković, K. (2007). Alcohol: effects on neurobehavioral functions and the brainNeuropsychology review17(3), 239-257.
  2. McIntosh, C., & Chick, J. (2004). Alcohol and the nervous systemJournal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry75(suppl 3), iii16-iii21.
  3. Spear, L. P. (2018). Effects of adolescent alcohol consumption on the brain and behaviourNature Reviews Neuroscience19(4), 197-214.
  4. Sherman, L. E., Rosenbaum, G. M., Smith, A. R., Botdorf, M. A., Fettich, K., Patrianakos, J. L., … & Chein, J. M. (2019). The interactive effects of peers and alcohol on functional brain connectivity in young adultsNeuroImage197, 264-272.