How Alcohol is Effecting Your Brain
It's more than just how you feel during intoxication
For many, effects on the brain resulting from alcohol might be dizziness, slurred speech, or impaired memory in the short-term. However, these symptoms can affect them in the long-term. The brain, which is the most delicate organ in the human body and throughout one’s lifetime, goes through five different stages both physically and mentally. While this organ physically continues to grow until age 11 for girls and 14 for boys, it continues to mature mentally (and emotionally) until mid to late 20’s. The prefrontal cortex of the brain plays a major role during this stage of life regarding decision-making, especially regarding alcohol. More specifically, this body part is responsible for planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If making responsible choices, one can allow these functions to consume alcohol while living a healthy life.
There are a number of factors that can play a part in how alcohol will affect a person’s life:
The amount of and how often drinks are consumed
The age they started drinking and how long they have been drinking
Age, genetic background, family history of alcoholism
Potential ‘at risk’ as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure
Overall health status
Oxford’s Gray Matter Study
A study conducted at the University of Oxford looked at the alcohol-intake of 25,000 people and their brain scans. Drinking had a negative effect on memory problems and could be a risk factor for dementia. The results also showed that drinking any type of alcohol had an effect on the brain's gray matter (where pieces of information are processed). Overall, it was concluded that a higher consumption of alcohol leads to less volume of gray matter.
Short-term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Short-term effects of alcohol can range from mild, common symptoms, such as vomiting and confusion, to fatal symptoms. Blackouts are typical for college students. Out of 772 surveyed, 51% claimed to have experienced one. Most cases of blackouts are a result of binge drinking (drinking too much too fast). Although some do remember parts of the experience, others don’t remember anything.
Long-term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Comparisons were taken of female and male brain shrinkage by using imaging. The long-term effects of alcohol showed significant brain damage. Learning and memory problems were the result of heavy drinking for both males and females. Up to 80% of those that struggle with alcoholism are associated with thiamine deficiency. Thiamine (Vitamin B1) is a nutrient required by all tissues—including the brain—and some of those that have the deficiency will develop serious brain disorders later in life, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). There are two syndromes in the disease: (1) Wernicke’s encephalopathy and (2) Korsakoff’s Psychosis.
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a short-lived and severe condition that includes mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves, and difficulty with muscle coordination. Studies that were conducted after patients’ deaths revealed several cases of thiamine deficiency-related encephalopathy. This condition may not be diagnosed during life because the signs or symptoms may not be recognized.
Korsakoff’s psychosis, on the other hand, is a chronic and debilitating syndrome characterized by persistent learning and memory problems. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of alcoholics with Wernicke’s encephalopathy also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis. Those with Korsakoff’s psychosis are forgetful, easily frustrated, and have difficulty with walking and coordination.
It is well-known that drinking can cause liver damage. However, not many people know that long-term liver damage from alcohol consumption can lead to damage to the brain. This can result in a serious and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy. Changes in one’s sleep patterns, mood, and personality are affected by this disorder. It can also cause psychiatric symptoms, cognitive effects, and coordination problems. In the worst case, a patient can go into a deadly coma.
Not everyone will experience these effects, but it’s still helpful to be aware of them. Certain alcoholic beverages have positive benefits, too. Living a healthy and balanced lifestyle might include drinking in moderation. Ultimately, it’s important to think about how one’s actions now can impact their future health.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, call SAMHSA’s (24/7, 365 days/year) National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).