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Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

woman experiencing effects of drinking red wine at home

Published: July 10, 2024

Reviewed by Matthew N. Parker, MD

Drinking alcohol can affect a person’s brain from the very first time that they use it, and these effects only become stronger the longer and more frequently a person drinks. Despite this, alcohol consumption is incredibly common, with nearly 80% of American adults and teens over the age of 12 reporting that they have consumed alcohol at some point in their lives.

The longer a person drinks alcohol, the more it affects them both physically and mentally, and over time changes a person’s brain chemistry and makes it harder and harder to stop drinking.

Alcohol and Brain Chemistry

Drinking alcohol can cause significant changes within a person’s brain and central nervous system, both in the short-term and long-term.

How Alcohol Affects Neurotransmitters

Alcohol interacts with multiple neurotransmitter systems within the brain, including those for GABA, glutamate, and dopamine. Long-term alcohol use can affect the way these neurotransmitters work and decrease their effectiveness.

For example, drinking alcohol in the long term can increase the amount of glutamate receptor sites in the hippocampus, causing the brain area responsible for making new memories to not work as well over time.

Impact on Brain Signaling and Communication

Alcohol interferes with the pathways used for communication, which in turn impairs brain function and makes it more difficult for various areas of the brain to do their jobs.

In people who use alcohol over a long period of time, impairment in these areas can cause anxiety, depression, dementia, and premature cognitive decline – essentially causing premature aging.

Immediate Effects on the Brain

Alcohol use can affect the brain immediately, and some people may even be more sensitive to alcohol’s effects than others.

Areas of the brain immediately affected by alcohol use:

  • Cerebral cortex – alcohol slows down the cerebral cortex, which is the area of the brain that takes in and processes new information, resulting in impaired judgment and other cognitive functions.
  • Cerebellum – this part of the brain can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, and can be affected by impairing a person’s balance and coordination while drinking.
  • Frontal lobe – alcohol use can cause changes in this area, which is responsible for decision making, self-control, problem solving, and judgment.
  • Limbic system – this system can be damaged by heavy drinking, affecting a person’s emotions and memory and increasing their risk for alcohol-related brain damage or dementia.

Short-Term Cognitive and Psychological Effects

The cognitive and psychological effects of alcohol can be felt almost immediately and will get stronger with excessive drinking.

Short-term cognitive and psychological effects of alcohol dependence include:

  • Memory impairment – after a period of heavy drinking a person may blackout and have limited memory of what happened while drinking.
  • Altered mood and behavior – alcohol can affect a person’s mood and behavior. For some, it can make them feel euphoria and happiness, while for others it can cause anxiety, depression, and even aggression.
  • Impaired decision making – while under the influence of alcohol, people have impaired decision-making skills, may lose their inhibition, and may engage in more risk-taking behaviors.
  • Slowed reaction time – because alcohol suppresses the central nervous system, reaction times are slowed which can also slow a person’s motor coordination and impair self-control.

Long-Term Cognitive Effects

The longer a person misuses alcohol, the more it will affect them cognitively and in other ways as well.

Long-term cognitive effects of alcohol dependence include:

  • Chronic memory loss – Long-term alcohol use can cause chronic memory loss and put a person at an increased risk for developing certain disorders, such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder characterized by a lack of thiamine and vitamin B1.
  • Cognitive decline – long-term alcohol use can also cause impairment of various cognitive functions and even affect a person’s intelligence over time.
  • Mood and behavior changes – long-term alcohol dependence can cause personality changes and mood shifts, and people may suddenly exhibit new behaviors like aggression and rage, promiscuity, and risk-taking behaviors.
  • Alcohol-induced psychosis – a condition that can occur either during intoxication or a period of withdrawal, and which involves hallucinations and delusions and often requires hospitalization.

Structural Changes in the Brain

In addition to altering a person’s brain chemistry, alcohol use can also change the structure of a person’s brain as well.

Brain Atrophy

Prolonged alcohol use can cause brain tissue shrinkage and lead to what is known as brain atrophy. This condition also leads to a decreased volume of the brain as well as a loss of neurons and the connections between them.

This condition can be blamed on a couple of things, one being that alcohol can cause fluid shifts within the brain and another being that alcohol misuse can cause brain cell death. Over time, brain atrophy can lead to other serious conditions like dementia, aphasia, and seizures.

White and Gray Matter Alterations

Long-term alcohol use can cause changes in brain structure and brain connectivity, as well as changes in white matter and gray matter. Loss of white matter from alcohol misuse has been associated with dementia, balance and coordination problems, and overall cognitive impairment.

The loss of gray matter, on the other hand, can contribute to the loss of fine motor skills, loss of memory, and even personality and behavior changes.

Impact on Neurodevelopment

In addition to impacting an adult brain, alcohol can also have a significant impact on a brain that is still developing.

Adolescents and Young Adults

When people start drinking alcohol at a young age, it can have strong effects on their brain development as well as other potential long-term consequences. Not only can drinking at a young age increase a person’s risk of injury or death, but it can also impair them cognitively and emotionally.

Adolescents who drink are also more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder or other type of substance use disorder later in life.

Pregnant Women

There is no amount of alcohol that is considered safe for pregnant women, as it can have detrimental effects on fetal brain development and cause several other negative consequences.

For example, drinking while pregnant can lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), a set of disorders with symptoms like deformed limbs, vision problems, developmental delays, learning disabilities, heart and kidney problems, and more.

Children who are born with FASD often experience issues for the rest of their lives, including social and behavior issues in addition to learning and thinking issues.

Mental Health Disorders

Alcohol use is also strongly linked to a variety of mental health disorders, with alcohol often used as a way of self-medicating to relieve the symptoms of mental illness.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Alcohol use disorder is defined as a chronic dependence on alcohol and includes both periods of actual intoxication and periods of withdrawal in between uses.

And while AUD can happen to anyone, there are certain risk factors that can make a person more prone to alcohol dependence.

Risk factors for AUD include:

  • Parents or other family members who have an AUD
  • Starting to drink at a young age
  • Easy access to alcohol
  • Peer and social pressure
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Engaging in binge drinking

If you are concerned about an alcohol use disorder affecting you or a loved one, it can be helpful to be aware of the signs and symptoms so that help can be sought as soon as possible.

Symptoms of an AUD include:

  • Being unable to stop drinking, even when it is causing harm
  • Short-term memory loss and other memory issues
  • Hiding alcohol use from friends and family
  • Not being able to function normally without alcohol
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms and side effects when not drinking
  • Performing poorly at work or in school
  • Spending more time talking about or thinking about alcohol
  • Engaging in risky behaviors, such as stealing or skipping school, in order to consume more alcohol

Co-Occurring Mental Health Issues

Alcohol use disorders frequently co-occur with other types of mental health disorders, as alcohol can be used as a way of self-medicating or as a means of escaping a painful reality.

Because of this, dual diagnosis treatment is commonly found in alcohol treatment, as it works to address both a person’s dependence and any mental health disorders they have at the same time.

Mental health disorders that commonly occur with alcohol dependence include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Other substance use disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Protective Strategies and Treatments

It can be difficult for someone who is dependent on alcohol to stop drinking on their own, and additional treatments and strategies are often necessary and helpful.

Protective strategies and treatments for alcohol use disorder include:

  • Preventative measures – it is crucial to reduce alcohol consumption before it becomes a problem, which can greatly mitigate brain damage in the long term.
  • Therapies – services like support groups, counseling, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people maintain their mental health and address any triggers or challenging life situations that arise.
  • Rehabilitation – these programs can be inpatient and/or outpatient and allow people to quit using substances under observation and medical supervision while also participating in group therapy and other types of therapy.
  • Dual diagnosis treatment – a useful type of treatment for dependence that works to address both a person’s substance use disorder and any co-occurring mental health disorders they have simultaneously.
  • Medications – some people may benefit from medication-assisted treatment that can help them through their alcohol dependence at a safe and comfortable rate while also protecting their brain health.
  • Support groups – such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), these groups can help people in recovery to find a supportive community and share their story with others who can relate to them.
  • Aftercare – this service can help people who have recently gone through a recovery program to transition safely and comfortably back into their usual lives and responsibilities.

Finding Help for an Alcohol Use Disorder

The effects of an alcohol use disorder can be detrimental to a person’s brain and overall mental health, which is why it is so important to be aware and to seek early intervention when possible.

Deciding to get help is a huge decision, and you should be proud of yourself or your loved one for making it to this point.

When you are ready to get started, call the helpline at RehabNet.com and we can help you find top-quality substance abuse treatment in your area, as well as other supportive resources.

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