Alcohol abuse 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 abuse 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.
How alcohol affects the brain? 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 impacts 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 memory. Alcohol affects this area, causing blackouts, memory loss, and impacting the ability to learn. Long-term use of alcohol can permanently affect 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
How alcohol affects 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:
- 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-induced 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’s symptoms are often related to memory problems, mood imbalances, and lack of judgment.
- 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.
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 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 consuming 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.
Possible indications of alcohol poisoning include 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.
How alcohol affects the brain? 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 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 plays critical roles in regulating emotions, decision making, behavior, and movement, anyone struggling with an alcohol addiction must seek professional treatment to slow damage to the brain.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment & Alcohol Detox California
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 such as We Level Up California. 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.
When it comes to Alcoholism treatment, it is normal to think of 12-step programs or 28-day inpatient rehab, but it becomes difficult to think of more options of treatment for this condition. In fact, there are a variety of treatment methods currently available. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are three types of treatment:
- Behavioral Treatments: are aimed at changing drinking behavior through counseling. They are led by health professionals and supported by studies showing they can be beneficial.
- Medications: Three medications are currently approved in the United States to help people stop or reduce their drinking and prevent relapse. They are prescribed by a primary care physician or other health professional and may be used alone or in combination with counseling.
- Mutual-Support Groups: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs provide peer support for people quitting or cutting back on their drinking. Combined with treatment led by health professionals, mutual-support groups can offer a valuable added layer of support. Due to the anonymous nature of mutual-support groups, it is difficult for researchers to determine their success rates compared with those led by health professionals.
Reclaim Your Life From Alcoholism
How alcohol affects the brain? Alcohol abuse can reshape and rewire the brain in very dangerous ways. Alcoholism is a serious disease that should not be taken lightly. We Level Up California Rehab Institute can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from Alcoholism with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.
 Loeber S, Duka T, Welzel H, Nakovics H, Heinz A, Flor H, Mann K. Impairment of cognitive abilities and decision making after chronic use of alcohol: the impact of multiple detoxifications. Alcohol Alcohol. 2009 Jul-Aug;44(4):372-81.