How Does Alcohol Use Affect Your Brain?
After just a few sips, alcohol begins taking effect on the brain. Acutely, drinking alcohol can generate brain sensations of feeling tipsy or intoxicated. If used in a large amount, such as during binge drinking, alcohol can affect your ability to function, and it can cause a memory loss phenomenon known as a “blackout.”
These effects are generally short-lived and disappear once a person has sobered up. However, chronic alcohol use can also have a longer-term impact on the structure and function of the brain.
Continue reading to learn more on the neurological impacts of alcohol and how to get help for an alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol is a Brain Manipulator
Whether wine, beer, or hard liquor, alcoholic beverages all share a common denominator of ethanol. Once it is absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and processed by the liver, ethanol enters the bloodstream and crosses the blood-brain barrier, where it can exert its influence. Upon first contacting the brain, ethanol can lower one’s inhibitions and function as a stimulant. Conversely, ethanol can act as a depressant at high doses; It may cause slowed speech, delayed processing time, and other cognitive impairments including damage to the brain.
Alcohol Affects Everyone’s Brain Differently
No two people on earth have identical brains, so it follows that alcohol ingestion uniquely affects people’s brains. Research has shown that the effect that alcohol exerts on the brain gets influenced by various factors such as age, gender, genetics, vitamin status, and former exposures to alcohol. Certain people may be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol on the brain, particularly older people, women, and those with thiamine deficiencies or family histories of alcoholism.
Alcohol Impacts The Brain Over Time
When a person drinks alcohol, its immediate effects are often most pronounced within the brain (compared to other organs that alcohol can affect, such as the liver, heart, and kidneys). Alcohol ingestion can trigger transient changes in your emotional state, memory, cognition, speech, and level of alertness.
Long-term, however, chronic alcohol use can have a longer-lasting impact on the brain. These changes in the brain occur incrementally with repeated exposures. Many alcohol-related effects can be subtle, and researchers are learning more information every day about the lasting changes that can happen in the brain due to alcohol use.
How Chronic Alcohol Use Can Shrink The Brain
Though different factors can affect alcohol’s influence on anyone’s brain, specific changes appear to be universal. Chronic alcohol misuse can cause a condition known as “cerebral atrophy,” which means, quite literally, brain shrinkage.
Researchers have shown that in the brain region known as the hippocampus, which is vital for memory processing, the brain shrinkage is proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed. That means that drinking a large amount of alcohol can result in hippocampal shrinking and more memory difficulties.
Though sometimes the effects of alcohol on the brain can be transient, the neurotoxic effects of chronic alcohol exposure are often persistent and irreversible. One brain condition highly associated with chronic alcohol use, known as Wernicke Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), can result in permanent memory impairment.
Fortunately, research shows that brain shrinkage, and its associated symptoms, may go away after a period of abstinence from alcohol consumption. That is why people struggling with an alcohol use disorder should not give up hope of recovery, even when it feels unattainable, it is possible to stop drinking and recover.
Alcohol’s Other Effects On the Brain
In addition to causing atrophy in critical areas of the brain, researchers also suspect that alcohol exposure can interfere with the development of new brain cells. That is a well-known phenomenon regarding fetal development and why pregnant and nursing women get highly cautioned against alcohol use.
However, the process of neurogenesis — or growing new brain cells — is also critical to the ability to continue learning and forming new memories. Studies have shown that when a brain gets exposed to high doses of alcohol or heavy drinking, its ability to grow new cells is impaired, leading to cognitive deficits such as short-term memory loss and slurred speech.
How to Find Help For an Alcohol Use Disorder
It can be intimidating to read about the effects of alcohol misuse on the brain, especially if you or a loved one is in the throes of alcohol addiction. However, many people with alcohol use disorders can fully recover and achieve lifelong sobriety with the help of a comprehensive rehabilitation program and support network. To learn more about our state-of-the-art rehabilitative services, contact us today.