Author: Gary Jackson

Alcohol and the Brain: An Overview National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism NIAAA

Moderate alcohol use may have some benefits, but heavy or binge drinking has no health benefits. It’s defined as three drinks in a day or more than seven drinks a week for women and for men older than 65, and more than four drinks in a day or more than 14 drinks a week for men 65 and younger. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions and clouds judgment, which could lead a person to engage in risky behaviors like having unprotected sex or driving a car while drunk. And if a person has an underlying mental health disorder, like depression or bipolar disorder, alcohol can exacerbate symptoms and increase mood swings. Prenatal alcohol exposure can cause brain damage, leading to a range of developmental, cognitive, and behavioral problems, which can appear at any time during childhood.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain

Also, studies examining brain functioning in people with and without a positive family history of alcoholism have shown that there are clear differences between the groups on measures of brain electrical activity (Porjesz and Begleiter 1998). Long-term, heavy drinking causes alterations in the neurons, such as reductions in their size. Whether or not a person engages in drinking should be a decision they make on their own, or with the help of a doctor or mental health professional. For many people without a history of dependence or addiction, Pagano said, drinking at low or moderate levels—no more than seven drinks a week for women, and no more than 14 a week for men—can be a healthy part of life.

El alcohol y el cerebro del adolescente

In the most extreme cases, drinking too much alcohol too fast can cause a loss of consciousness. “We worry about that for safety reasons, of course, but this is also a sign of cell death,” said Lara Ray, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California Los Angeles Brain Research Institute. “So we also worry about brain damage—and with multiple episodes of heavy drinking, that damage can have long-term consequences for learning and memory.” Each person has a different alcohol metabolism, which is the ability to break down and eliminate alcohol.

  • Some states have higher penalties for people who drive with high BAC (0.15 to 0.20 or above) due to the increased risk of fatal accidents.
  • When people over the age of 65 drink alcohol, it can worsen declines in brain function that happen during aging.
  • In the absence of a cure for alcoholism, a detailed understanding of the actions of alcohol on nerve cells may help in designing effective therapies.
  • But as you drink more — and you don’t need to drink that much more — eventually, the enzymes that break down the alcohol get saturated.

Some people drink to feel sociable, celebrate a special occasion or to complement a meal. While alcohol can act as a social lubricant and may provide “liquid courage” for people who are otherwise anxious or shy, Pagano warned against relying on it too much. “If drinking allows you to engage in behavior you wouldn’t engage in otherwise, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it,” said Pagano.

Models for Explaining Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Research on malnutrition, a common consequence of poor dietary habits in some alcoholics, indicates that thiamine deficiency (vitamin B1) can contribute to damage deep within the brain, leading to severe cognitive deficits (Oscar-Berman 2000). The exact location of the affected parts of the brain and underlying neuropathological mechanisms are still being researched (see the next section). However, it is not known whether this comparison between men and women holds among older populations (Oscar-Berman 2000). People who drink regularly may also notice that booze doesn’t have the same effect on them as it used to. “With chronic drinking, the wiring element to your brain’s reward system can get worn out and lose some of its normal functioning,” said Pagano. “You build up a tolerance, and after a while, you don’t feel as good as you once did with the same amounts of alcohol.”

  • Alcohol also is toxic to a developing brain during pregnancy and can cause congenital disabilities, including developmental disorders.
  • Alcohol reaches your brain in only five minutes, and starts to affect you within 10 minutes.
  • The brain’s hippocampus region—which helps create new memories—is also affected by alcohol, which contributes to blackouts and short-term memory lapses while drinking.
  • Researchers use multiple methods to understand the etiologies and mechanisms of brain damage across subgroups of alcoholics.
  • Over the next 30 years, the participants answered detailed questions about their alcohol intake and took tests to measure memory, reasoning, and verbal skills.
  • Misuse of alcohol during adolescence can alter brain development, potentially resulting in long-lasting changes in brain structure and function.

Heavy drinking also may speed up memory loss in early old age, at least in men, according to a 2014 study in the journal Neurology. Men in the study who had more than two and a half drinks a day experienced signs of cognitive decline up to six years earlier than those who did not drink, had quit drinking, or were light or moderate drinkers (results for women were not conclusive, the authors said). Continuing to drink despite clear signs of significant impairments can result in an alcohol overdose. An alcohol overdose occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions—such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control—begin to shut down.

Effects of alcohol on the brain

However, drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol can lead to heart problems. Too much alcohol may raise your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, putting you at higher risk for heart disease. But if you have a response to alcohol that’s noticeably different from other people’s, it may be time to reexamine your relationship with drinking, advised Pagano. “If you can drink other people under the table, or you see your friends leaving alcohol in their glasses and you know you could never do that yourself, those are signals you’ve got a genetic setup for developing an addiction,” said Pagano. “If you’re using alcohol to cope with stress or anxiety, if you’re going out and intending to drink one drink and you’re not able to stop yourself from drinking, it’s important to talk to your doctor and meet with a specialist,” encourages Dr. Anand. In addition to dementia, long-term alcohol use can lead to other memory disorders like Korsakoff syndrome or Wernicke’s encephalopathy.

  • Therefore, to understand the effects of alcoholism, it is important to consider the influence of a wide range of variables.
  • The most plausible conclusion is that neurobehavioral deficits in some alcoholics result from the combination of prolonged ingestion of alcohol, which impairs the way the brain normally works, and individual vulnerability to some forms of brain damage.
  • “Intoxication occurs when alcohol intake exceeds your body’s ability to metabolize alcohol and break it down,” explains Amanda Donald, MD, a specialist in addiction medicine at Northwestern Medicine.
  • Drawing on the respective advantages of these complementary methods, an integrated multimodal approach can reveal where in the brain the critical changes are occurring, as well as the timing and sequence in which they happen (Dale and Halgren 2001).
  • That number jumped to four or five years for those who had 18 drinks or more per week.