What are the effects of alcohol on the brain? When you drink alcohol, it travels throughout every part of the body in the bloodstream. Alcohol also affects certain neurotransmitters, which are the messengers that send signals throughout the body. Neurotransmitters play a role in how we behave, think and experience emotions.
For example, drinking causes the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to produce at higher levels. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, so it plays a role in calming energy levels and overall activity. That’s why drinking can cause drowsiness and sedation. This reaction is also why alcohol use can lead to side effects such as slurred speech, slow thinking and poor coordination.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
Along with increasing the effects of GABA, what are other short-term effects of alcohol on the brain? When you drink, alcohol triggers the release of dopamine into the brain’s reward center. That’s why drinking can make you feel euphoric, content and happy. The effects of alcohol and dopamine in the brain are more significant in men than in women, which is one reason researchers believe alcoholism rates are higher among men.
The combination of the effects on GABA and dopamine are why you see certain side effects in drunk people. Drunk people may be talkative, social and happy as well as seeming as if they’re going to fall or slurring their words.
The effects of alcohol on dopamine and brain reward centers are part of why alcoholism can develop. When a substance like alcohol affects reward centers, it can trigger a reward cycle. That reward cycle can compel someone to continue seeking out the pleasant effects of alcohol, a task which can grow out of control.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Beyond the effects of increased GABA, there are other short-term effects of alcohol on the brain. For example, alcohol affects the cerebral cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for thought processing. When alcohol affects the cerebral cortex, it leads to a slowdown in information processing and also lowered inhibition.
The effects of alcohol on the cerebral cortex are why it can feel like you can’t think clearly when you’re under the influence of alcohol.
Alcohol affects the cerebellum, responsible for movement and balance. The hypothalamus and pituitary areas of the brain are affected by alcohol, leading to increased sexual urges but often decreased sexual performance. Alcohol impacts the medulla which leads to drowsiness, lower body temperature and slower breathing.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
What about the long-term effects of alcohol on the brain? With repeated exposure to alcohol, long-term effects can include brain damage and the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome that can result in muscle control and memory issues.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a disease resulting from a thiamine deficiency. A thiamine deficiency exists in as much as 80 percent of people who misuse alcohol. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome causes mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that control eye movement and problems with muscle coordination. There are also symptoms of psychosis with the syndrome, including ongoing learning and memory problems.
The specific areas of the brain most often damaged by long-term alcohol exposure include the frontal lobe and the cerebellum. The frontal lobe controls high-level mental skills and logical thinking as well as behavioral and impulse control. The cerebellum controls muscle movement.
Reversing Brain Damage from Long-Term Alcohol Abuse
Can brain damage from alcohol be reversed? In many cases, brain damage from alcohol misuse is reversible. Researchers that looked at brain damage from alcohol misuse find that the symptoms such as cognitive decline and shrinkage start to reverse when people abstain from alcohol.
When people can avoid alcohol, it can lead to increases in the volume of pivotal brain areas. The increases often occur in both gray brain matter and white brain matter. For many people, improvements and damage reversals begin within just a week after abstaining from alcohol.
Researchers also found that new brain cells could develop when people abstain from chronic alcohol consumption. Additionally, when people focus on physical health through exercise and improved nutrition, such as in a formal addiction treatment program, this can further promote the growth of new brain cells.
Getting Treatment for Alcohol Abuse
Getting professional treatment for alcohol misuse is the best way to address the presence of addiction in your life. When you receive treatment, you’re working on not just your mental health, but your physical health as well. To learn more, contact The Recovery Village Ridgefield and speak to a representative who can tell you more about how individualized treatment programs work to address each patient’s needs.
Buddy, T. “How to Reverse Brain Damage from Long-Term Alcohol Use.” Verywell Mind, December 12, 2018. Accessed March 22, 2019.
DiSalvo, D. “What Alcohol Really Does to Your Brain.” Forbes, October 16, 2012. Accessed March 22, 2019.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.” October 2004. Accessed March 22, 2019.