How Alcohol Affects the Brain

There are many substances to which a person can become addicted. Of the many substances to which a person could become physically and psychologically dependent, alcohol is widely considered to be the original addiction. Our history with alcohol can be traced back several thousands of years and includes times when it was more acceptable to drink alcohol than water or any other alternatives.

Unfortunately, alcohol has become abused more and more frequently over the past several centuries, making alcohol abuse a major problem to contemporary society. Although alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, was widely believed to be a moral affliction at one time, we know today that alcoholism is actually a disease.

However, unlike other diseases, alcoholism is a disease that’s both physical as well as psychological, affecting individuals in a wide variety of ways. There are many effects that alcohol has on the brain in particular; therefore, the following will explain how alcohol affects the brain, both immediately and with long-term use.

What Happens When You Drink Alcohol?

Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it reduces or “depresses” the body’s functioning, particularly the central nervous system. We have seen this in the tendency for individuals to become incredibly drowsy, uncoordinated with heavy bodies while intoxicated. However, alcohol also has a number of unexpected roles, particularly in the brain where it can actually act as an indirect stimulant. The consumption of alcohol messes with an individual’s brain chemistry, especially the neurotransmitters that control one’s thought processes, emotions, and overall behavior. Additionally, alcohol has a major impact on the excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters while also making the brain significantly less able to receive and process information.

For instance, gamma-Aminobutyric acid — or GABA for short — is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter that causes a reduction in one’s energy levels and serves to calm a person down. Many benzodiazepines, including Xanax and Valium, work by increasing the brain’s production of GABA, enhancing this sedating effect. Although alcohol doesn’t cause increased production of the GABA neurochemical, it does increase the efficacy of GABA, enhancing its functional attributes and causing a sedative effect similar to benzodiazepines. This manifests in the slurred speech, dramatically slow movements and thought processes, and clumsiness exhibited by individuals who have consumed alcohol to the point of intoxication; moreover, these effects become stronger or more pronounced as the individual continues to consume more alcohol.

Strangely, alcohol intoxication causes contradictory effects by triggering a spike in dopamine levels in the brain, which is associated with the brain’s reward and pleasure pathways. After binge-drinking, an individual feels a surge of pleasure that reinforces the drinking behavior and makes the individual want to continue drinking. However, they’re also experiencing conflicting feelings of sedation and depression. This is why individuals intoxicated from alcohol will often abruptly transition from being energetic to incredibly drowsy.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

One major effect of long-term alcohol abuse is a decrease in the ability to feel or experience effects from dopamine. The reason for this can be attributed to the spikes in dopamine that conflict with the sedative effects of alcohol consumption; individuals who abuse alcohol frequently over time are triggering frequent dopamine spikes that the brain becomes less and less able to process, resulting in the virtual inability to experience any effects of dopamine.

When an individual is unable to activate the dopamine — which, again, is associated with the reward and pleasure pathways — he or she will begin experiencing almost continuous feelings of depression. In fact, this is a well-documented phenomenon that some refer to as alcohol depression.

Alcohol has been frequently implicated in both short- and long-term memory loss with most studies indicating that habitual drinkers experience issues pertaining to memory with increasing severity over time with more severe drinking causing more severe memory problems. There’s also a condition known as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome, or WAS, that up to 80 percent of alcoholics are at risk of developing.

Caused by the deficiency in thiamine that comes with habitual alcohol abuse, Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome is actually two syndromes in one with the first being a more short-term syndrome involving muscle confusion, paralysis of muscles and nerves in the eyes, and a severe lack of coordination; the second syndrome is long-term and an incredibly debilitating psychosis that causes individuals to have difficulty walking, suffer from retrograde amnesia — inability to create new memories — and become easily frustrated.

In brain scans of alcoholics, there have even been a number of physical and structural changes that are caused by habitual alcohol abuse. Specifically, there is often a mass loss of brain tissue in various regions of the brain, making it much less able to convey important information from one part of the brain to another as there are less connections. Additionally, the brains of individuals suffering from severe, long-term alcoholism usually exhibit what are known as lesions, or areas in which the brainmatter has deteriorated and that look much like an open sore on the brain.

Battling Addiction? Give Us a Call

At Drug Treatment Center Finder, it’s our goal to help each and every person suffering from addiction to find the treatment that best fist each person’s needs. For a free consultation and assessment, call us today at 1-855-619-8070. Our recovery specialists are available to help you or a loved one begin the process of recovery and return to a life of health and happiness.

Staff Writer :