Alcohol use is highly ingrained in our culture, and studies show that light drinking can even have some health benefits. However, all available data points to the fact that heavy drinking is highly damaging to the body and the brain specifically, with effects that are detrimental in both the short and the long term. Alcohol abuse is something that millions of individuals in the United States struggle with, but only about 10% of them get the help they need. Alcohol effects on the brain include a variety of cognitive and behavioral changes, and it’s important to be familiar with them.
Slurred Speech And Loss Of Coordination
One of the first noticeable signs of alcohol affecting the brain is slurred speech. This typically begins to occur with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1%, which is more than the legal limit for driving. This because alcohol affects the neurons in the brain, especially in the cerebellum. In particular, alcohol disrupts the firing of neurons called Purkinje neurons, which are related to voluntary muscle coordination. While this is a short term effect in most cases, long term alcoholism can lead to brain damage which results in dysarthria, which is difficulty speaking words.
Binge drinking has a significant impact on the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for creating new memories. This is what causes lapses of short term memory or even blackouts among drinkers. Studies show that alcoholics have a lower overall hippocampus volume. Alcohol use can inhibit “neurogenesis,” or the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is an essential function when it comes to learning and memory.
Alcohol has a profound impact on the cerebral cortex, which is the brain’s center for thought and consciousness. Even more specifically, it affects the prefrontal cortex, which is where decisions are made. Alcohol interferes with the brain’s behavioral inhibition centers, which means makes it difficult to process information and think through the consequences of your actions. This can lead to risky behaviors such as driving while drunk, having engaging in sex without protection, or even giving in to aggressive behavior. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports that 40% of all violent crimes committed in the United States involve alcohol consumption to varying degrees.
Interferes With Dopamine Levels
Consumption of alcohol triggers the release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s reward system. This is what causes many to feel a “warm and fuzzy” feeling while drinking. This encourages the user to drink more alcohol, many times in excess of moderate levels. Studies show that long term users have less D1 receptors in their brain. This means chronic alcoholics not only have a more difficult time recapturing the pleasant feeling from drinking but have more difficulty feeling pleasure in general.
Rewires Your Brain
This interference with the brain’s dopamine levels isn’t just a short term issue either. After long term abuse of a drug like alcohol, the brain doesn’t produce the same levels of dopamine that it did prior to addiction. This means that the user continues to crave the drug as they are incapable of feeling good otherwise, regardless of any consequences. When you become addicted to alcohol, it essentially rewires your brain.
Long Term Cognitive Issues
While alcohol doesn’t directly result in the death of brain cells as many believe, it does cause damage to the ends of your neurons. Known as dendrites, they are responsible for transmitting messages between neurons. Once these become damaged, severe cognitive problems can begin to develop. Chronic alcoholism can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb thiamine. Also known as vitamin B1, thiamine is highly essential when it comes to nerve function. This deficiency can lead to a condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Chronic alcohol abuse is the most common cause of this condition, which has many serious side effects which include lack of muscle coordination, inability to form new memories, paralysis, or even death.
While dementia can occur from age, chronic alcohol abuse can cause the brain to deteriorate much faster. Individuals who partake in binge drinking when they are younger are three times more likely to develop dementia by the time they reach 65. Side effects of dementia include paranoia, hallucinations, personality changes, depression, anxiety, difficulty with motor function, and memory loss.
The long term alcohol effects on the brain can also reveal themselves in dramatic personality changes. These can vary greatly depending on the individual. Depression is one such example. Alcohol is a depressant, but with long term alcoholism, the individual can become more susceptible to depression even when they are sober. It’s also common for alcoholics to experience increased aggression, mood swings, compulsive behavior, and anxiety. Individuals who already struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions run a greater risk of developing a dependency on alcohol.
Decreases Your Brain Size
Many people are surprised to find out that heavy drinking can also decrease the size of your brain. Declining brain volume is actually a normal part of aging and typically occurs at 2 percent per decade. However, studies show a correlation between increased alcohol intake and decreased brain volume. This may partly be due to the fact that alcohol dehydrates tissues.
Alcohol is one of the most highly addictive and abused drugs. If you are struggling with alcohol abuse disorder, it’s important to get help as soon as possible.