How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Multiple studies have found a link between excessive alcohol use and damaged brain function, resulting in such conditions as dementia, deficits in learning and memory, mental disorders, and other cognitive damage. Without intervention, the brain can be permanently impaired by chronic alcohol use. With treatment, it’s possible to reverse this damage and heal the brain.

Alcohol use contributes to about 88,000 deaths in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While many alcohol-related deaths result from motor vehicle accidents, other causes include falls, drownings, homicide, suicide, burns, and sexual or other violence.

Multiple studies have found a link between excessive alcohol use and damaged brain function, resulting in such conditions as dementia, deficits in learning and memory, mental disorders, and other cognitive damage. Without intervention, the brain can be permanently impaired by chronic alcohol use. With treatment, it’s possible to reverse this damage and heal the brain.

Even in the short term, alcohol affects areas of the brain controlling cognitive and motor functions, causing them to slow down. Alcohol impairs memory, judgment, and coordination and disrupts sleep patterns. When used long-term, alcohol may cause permanent brain damage.

When an individual consumes alcohol in large amounts or over a long period of time, the effects on the body and brain can be deadly. Alcohol adversely affects several regions of the brain, as well as the Central Nervous System (CNS), which includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Because alcohol is a depressant, it can dangerously suppress breathing and lower body temperature to life-threatening levels.

Dopamine and the Brain

The brain contains neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that transmit signals between brain cells and send information throughout the body. Dopamine is one of those chemical messengers and is strongly impacted by the presence of alcohol. Centered in the motivation, pleasure, and reward center of the brain, dopamine levels influence our mood. Higher levels of dopamine make us feel happier, more motivated and raise our self-esteem. When dopamine levels are low, we may feel depressed and unmotivated.

Dopamine levels naturally increase when we experience something pleasurable, like eating something delicious, exercising, spending time with friends, or receiving positive feedback on a work or school project. Higher levels of dopamine make us feel happy and motivate us to re-experience what made us feel that way. Alcohol and other addictive substances trigger a much higher than normal increase in dopamine levels, causing an even more intense desire to repeat the behavior.

As alcohol use continues, the brain adjusts to the high levels of dopamine present and begins to produce less dopamine naturally. As natural dopamine levels drop, the brain demands a greater amount of alcohol to keep dopamine production artificially high. This pattern is called tolerance, which means the body has become dependent on alcohol. At this point, if an individual stops consuming alcohol, they will experience withdrawal symptoms, as the brain attempts to recover from a constant state of overstimulation and regain balance.

Studies have confirmed that even small amounts of alcohol cause an increase in dopamine levels. One such study, published in the journal Alcohol Health and Research World, states, “This dopamine release may contribute to the rewarding effects of alcohol and may thereby play a role in promoting alcohol consumption.”

What Parts of the Brain Does Alcohol Affect

The brain controls our thoughts, emotions, memory, motor functions, temperature, senses, organs, and autonomic activities like breathing. Alcohol can have an adverse health impact on all of these vital brain functions.

  • The Cerebral Cortex is the thinking center of our consciousness. It’s where we process incoming information and where we formulate judgments and decisions. Alcohol depresses this function, slowing the input of sensory information, clouding the thought process, and reducing inhibitions. Long-term use of alcohol can permanently damage the cerebral cortex.
  • The Cerebellum is the center of movement, coordination, equilibrium, and balance. Alcohol impairs this brain region, affecting our balance, causing us to be unsteady, stagger, and possibly fall. It may also cause our hands to shake.
  • The Hypothalamus and the Pituitary work together to link the nervous system to the endocrine system. This region of the brain both stimulates and inhibits key hormonal processes in order to maintain the body’s internal balance. Alcohol depresses and disrupts the balance of these systems, as well as impacting sexual desire and performance. Sexual desire may intensify, but the ability to perform may be impaired.
  • The Medulla controls such automatic functions as breathing, consciousness, and body temperature. Alcohol depresses these vital functions, causing sleepiness, slowing breathing, lowering body temperature, and possibly coma. Depression of automatic functions can be life-threatening.
  • The Hippocampus controls the memory. Alcohol affects this area, causing blackouts, memory loss, and impacting the ability to learn. Long-term use of alcohol can permanently affect the memory and can contribute to dementia.
  • The Central Nervous System is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Alcohol slows down the transmission of messages to and from these areas, slowing movement, thinking, and speech.

Long Term Effects of Alcohol On The Brain

Many long-term effects of alcohol use can cause permanent damage to the brain, as well as to various organs. With intervention, brain damage may be reversible. Alcohol’s long-term brain impacts include:

  • Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and can damage brain cells. Some of the most dangerous symptoms may include hallucinations and seizures. About 5 percent of those going through withdrawal will experience delirium tremens (DTs), the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Damage to neurotransmitters slows communication between different areas of the brain and reduces energy levels.
  • Brain shrinkage is caused by a loss of gray matter, which contains cell bodies, and white matter, which controls cell pathways. A 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal is one of many that has identified a correlation between high alcohol consumption and brain shrinkage.
  • Cognitive impairment may affect verbalization, mental processing, memory, learning, concentration, and impulse control. Studies find areas of the brain related to problem solving and impulse control have the highest risk for damage from alcohol. Impairment in this area of the brain may result in alcohol-related dementia.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is related to severe thiamine deficiency, resulting in alcohol-induced brain dysfunction, according to Medical News Today. Symptoms of Wernicke may include confusion, disorientation, malnourishment, jerky eye movements, and poor balance. Korsakoff symptoms are often related to memory problems, mood imbalances, and lack of judgment.

Alcohol Poisoning & Overdose

According to the CDC, an average of 6 people die every day in the U.S. from alcohol poisoning. Many of those deaths are as a result of binge drinking and are not from long-term alcohol use. Just one instance of excessive alcohol intake can result in an overdose, which may lead to brain damage or death.

Binge drinking means to consume a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time and is one of the most common causes of alcohol poisoning. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states binge drinking occurs when an individual’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is at .08 or higher, which is the threshold for legal intoxication in many states.

An overdose happens when more alcohol is consumed than the body can process, causing a toxic build-up. The extreme depressant effect of this much alcohol can cause irregular heartbeat, dangerously low body temperature, and slowed or stopped breathing.

The Mayo Clinic website lists possible indications of alcohol poisoning including confusion, vomiting, seizures, extremely slow breathing (less than 8 breaths per minute), irregular breathing (more than 10 seconds between breaths), bluish or pale skin, hypothermia, and unconsciousness. An alcohol overdose is a medical emergency. If suspected, summon help immediately.

What Happens To Your Brain When You Quit Drinking?

As we’ve noted above, an alcohol use disorder fundamentally changes the way certain key areas of the brain function. As the brain and body become more habituated to the presence of alcohol in the body, it becomes more difficult for a chronic drinker to quit drinking.

When they do decide to stop drinking, they will experience a condition known as withdrawal, as the brain “resets” back to its baseline functioning in the absence of alcohol. This means that the brain is no longer releasing the same levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitter chemicals that it was during chronic alcohol use. At the same time, the brain begins to restart the flow of other chemicals that were paused by alcohol.

For example, during withdrawal, the brain restarts the production of neurotransmitter chemicals that cause us feelings of stress and anxiety. While alcohol dampens the production of these neurotransmitters, they are present and active when sober. The release of these chemicals, in addition to other physical and chemical changes in the absence of alcohol, can lead an individual going through withdrawal to become more angry, depressed, frustrated, or tired than previously.

Over time, if individuals go through multiple periods of withdrawal followed by a return to drinking, the brain becomes less likely to release pleasure-causing dopamine and other neurotransmitter chemicals even when sober. As a result, individuals who have quit and then begun drinking again multiple times may find it challenging to motivate themselves to stay sober, making it more likely they will relapse into drinking once more.

In addition to its effects on the brain, alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. Withdrawal often takes place within 48 hours of an individual’s last drink and can lead to “flu-like” symptoms, including lack of energy, increased sweating, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and feelings of stress and anxiety.

As mentioned above, in some cases, alcohol withdrawal can also lead to a condition known as delirium tremens, in which the individual going through withdrawal may become highly confused and even experience hallucinations. At the same time, their body temperature may become dangerously elevated and they may be at increased risk for seizures. If left untreated, delirium tremens can be fatal.

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

A common expression to warn people to cut back on harmful behaviors is that they will “kill their brain cells.” As we’ve seen earlier, alcohol can fundamentally reshape and rewire the brain, but does it actually kill brain cells themselves?

Research from Harvard Medical School found that drinking damages the brain’s white matter, or tissue deep inside the brain that helps us process thoughts and governs movement, as well as transmits messages between the nervous system and other regions of the brain.

While Parkinson’s Disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure can also damage white matter, alcohol can speed up this cumulative damage. Researchers found that alcohol particularly damaged white matter in parts of the brain that are responsible for controlling impulses, making it less likely that individuals will be able to cut back or quit drinking.

Luckily, researchers did see one glimmer of hope, as it appeared that this damaged white matter could potentially heal if drinkers quit drinking before they reached the age of 50.

While individuals who have consumed alcohol on a chronic basis for many years are at high risk of this type of damage, the risk is not limited to long-term drinkers.

One research study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2015 indicated that individuals who began drinking heavily while in their teens saw damage to the gray matter in the brains, which assists with processing emotional responses, memories, and the senses. At the same time, they also had slower and more reduced white matter growth in their brains.

An additional study found that damage to the brain’s white matter resulted in “slower, less efficient thinking” which can impact individuals for long periods of time, especially if they sustained alcohol-related damage to their brains at a younger age.

Since both white and gray matter play critical roles in regulating emotions, decision making, behavior, and movement, it’s essential that anyone struggling with alcohol addiction seek professional treatment to slow damage to the brain.

Recovery From Alcohol Abuse

Though recovery can be challenging, research indicates that a focus on sobriety and other healthy life choices can provide a framework for better brain health. The brain is remarkably adaptable and, with proper care and support, can begin to heal from chronic alcohol use in many cases.

When seeking a recovery partner, it’s important to select a treatment provider who understands how alcohol use disorder impacts the chemistry and makeup of the brain and provides treatment accordingly. Don’t be afraid to ask providers directly what level of experience they have with the neuroscience of addiction and how they incorporate brain-focused care into their treatment plans.

At StoneRidge Centers, we understand the connection between alcohol addiction and the brain. This is why we begin our treatment for alcohol addiction with a focus on healing the brain through a combination of innovative, specialized treatment and evidence-based clinical therapy, all overseen by our triple-board-certified medical director.

Contact StoneRidge Centers today to find out how we can help you or a loved one heal the damage caused by alcohol abuse.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

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qEEG/Brain Mapping
Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients' brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.

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Neurofeedback
This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

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Spravato Therapy
We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

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Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)
Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

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Individual Therapy
Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

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Group/Family Therapy
Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space. .
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