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The Long And Short-Term Impact Of Alcohol On The Brain

Last updated Jan. 27, 2016

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

Lindsey G

The brain is the control center for all the body activities, and alcoholism can severely cripple these functions. Certain impairments are associated with short-term consumption (one or two servings of alcohol) while others are observed as long-term results of regular alcohol consumption.


The brain is the control center for all the body activities, and alcoholism can severely cripple these functions.  Certain impairments are associated with short-term consumption  (one or two servings of alcohol) while others are observed as long-term results of regular alcohol consumption.

What alcohol can do to your brain?

  • Memory loss: Even a small amount of alcohol can impair neurotransmitter (Example: glutamate) functions and have a negative impact on memory. Alcohol consumption can cause memory damage and blackouts when consumed very quickly or on an empty stomach.
  • Neurotransmitter imbalance: Neurotransmitters of the brain may undergo an imbalance due to heavy alcohol drinking, even from a single occasion. The slow relay of brain messages can cause coordination problems, memory loss, depression, behavioral changes, and seizures.
  • Liver disease affects the brain: Alcoholism leads to the breakdown of alcohol in the liver and the formation of toxic byproducts (ex. manganese, ammonia), which damage liver cells and can travel to the brain and cause brain disorders. Prolonged indulgence in alcohol could result in a serious and potentially fatal brain condition known as hepatic encephalopathy. The symptoms of this condition include anxiety, depression, mood changes, reduced concentration, sleep disturbances, impaired coordination issues, coma, and even death.
  • Lifespan changes: Fetal alcohol exposures can lead to mental and physical birth defects. Fetal alcohol syndrome, characterized by impaired brain function, can produce fewer brain cells and reduced brain volume. The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention states that alcohol consumption reduces the intellectual capabilities of teenagers. The US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) also states that brain damage can result if teenagers drink alcohol. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports that decreasing alcohol consumption amongst teenagers can reduce their learning disabilities.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: This is a combination of two disorders: Short-term Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Short-term Korsakoff Psychosis. This is the result of a thiamine deficiency that progressively increases with alcohol consumption in most individuals. This causes learning disabilities and memory issues. The common manifestations of this syndrome are Blurred vision, slurring speech, walking difficulties, impaired memory, lack of attention span and coordination issues. All of these physical and mental impairments could be a result of long-term, as well as short-term alcoholism.
  • Disturbing basic brain functionality: Alcohol impairs the brain cortex that communicates with the sense organs. Impairment of the frontal lobes can lead to mood changes since these lobes are responsible for decision-making, planning abilities, and self-control. Damage to the hippocampus can lead to compromised memories and blackouts. Thoughts and awareness are also disturbed if damage occurs in the cerebellum. An excessive amount of alcohol consumption can reduce medulla function, which regulates voluntary functions and body temperature. The hypothalamus, the controller of nearly all physiological body processes, can also be negatively impacted by alcohol consumption.

Women are more vulnerable than men to the brain impairments caused by alcohol. The NIAAA states low-risk drinking for women is no more than 3 drinks a day and a maximum of 7 drinks a week; for men, no more than 4 drinks a day and a maximum of 14 drinks a week. One drink is measured as 14g of pure alcohol. This amount is typically present in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. Thus, the amount of alcohol consumed, rather than the type, should be monitored. Even if these limits are followed, there can still be problems if health issues are present, drinks are consumed on an empty stomach, or drinks are consumed too quickly. The NIAAA recommends certain people to avoid completely alcohol: people who plan to drive, pregnant women, and those with certain medical conditions or on certain medications. Nutrition and psychological counselors can help people determine how to drink responsibly. They can also assist alcohol addicts by correcting associated symptoms (if any) and improve overall health.

References:

(2004 Oct). Alcohol’s Damaging Effects On the Brain. Retrieved fromhttp://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm

(2010 Sept). Beyond Hangovers. Retrieved from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Hangovers/beyondHangovers.htm

Alcohol and the Developing Brain. Retrieved from http://www.toosmarttostart.samhsa.gov/families/facts/brain.aspx

Hanson, D.J. Drinking Alcohol Damages Teenagers’ Brains. Retrieved from http://www2.potsdam.edu/alcohol/HealthIssues/1127400726.html#.VQKKo_mUdN9

Myths and Facts About Alcohol and Brain Damage. Retrieved from http://www.hamsnetwork.org/brain_damage/ 

Simon, H. (2013 Mar 8). Alcoholism. Retrieved from http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/alcoholism

Drinking Levels Defined. Retrieved from http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking

Hepatic Encephalopathy·A Serious Complication of Alcoholic Liver Disease. Retrieved June 9, 2015, from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/143-145.htm

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: June 11, 2015
Last updated: Jan. 27, 2016