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Alcohol-Related Brain Damage: Understanding the Risks

Excessive alcohol use can have long-term effects on the brain and cause several health complications. While alcohol may only have short-term effects on balance, speech, judgment, and memory, excessive amounts can also cause negative health consequences, including permanent brain damage or death. This article delves into the short and long-term effects of alcohol on the brain, alcohol-related brain diseases and conditions, and how much alcohol is too much. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use, an addiction treatment program can help you regain control over your life.

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Excessive alcohol use can damage the brain, causing a number of health complications.

If you believe you have or are at risk of experiencing brain damage as a result of alcohol use, it’s a clear sign that you need help. An addiction treatment program can help to limit further brain damage, promote healing of any current damage, and help you regain control over your life.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Chronic and high-level alcohol use has many impacts on the brain, with effects ranging from short-term issues to long-term damage.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing breathing rates and heartbeat. Alcohol also works directly on neurotransmitters in the brain, impacting portions that handle memory, decision-making, impulse control, and attention. Those changes are partially responsible for why people feel loose, uninhibited, and silly while drinking.

Alcohol also triggers opioid receptors in the brain, making the sips seem even more rewarding and memorable. Changes in dopamine signaling make the people, places, and things associated with alcohol cues to drink more.

In excess, alcohol can have a dangerous effect on basic life-supporting systems. Breathing, heart rate, and temperature control can shut down, causing negative health consequences, including permanent brain damage or even death.

Signs of an alcohol overdose or alcohol poisoning include the following:

  •       Mental confusion
  •       Difficulty remaining conscious
  •       Vomiting
  •       Seizures
  •       Trouble breathing
  •       Slow heart rate
  •       Clammy skin
  •       Dulled responses, including a reduced or non-existent gag reflex
  •       Extremely low body temperature

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism say long-term drinking can lead to damage that makes quitting tough.

For example, alcohol can dull the amygdala in the brain, which helps to regulate stress responses. When people quit drinking and that part of the brain wakes up, people can feel intense negative emotions that only drinking seems to ease.

Long-term drinkers can also face problems with the prefrontal portion of the brain, which regulates decision-making and impulse control. This damage makes it hard for people to quit drinking or make good decisions about how much they drink. Researchers say this damage can persist after years of abstinence, complicating recovery.

Alcohol-Related Brain Diseases & Conditions

Researchers say alcohol-related brain damage is an umbrella term that encompasses several conditions with different features. There are no consensus guidelines for the assessment and diagnoses of alcohol-related brain diseases. However, we do know that many people struggle with the following conditions:

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is the condition most people mean when discussing less defined terms such as alcoholism and alcohol addiction. In 2022, 29.5 million people ages 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder.

Common symptoms of alcohol use disorder include the following:

  •     Drinking more than intended in a sitting
  •     The inability to stop drinking even when one wants to do so
  •     Spending excessive time drinking or recovering from drinking
  •     Severe alcohol cravings
  •     Drinking that impacts a person’s ability to meet home, work, or social obligations
  •     Continued drinking despite trouble with family and friends
  •     Reduced time on once-loved activities to drink more
  •     Drinking that increased the chances of getting hurt (such as drinking while driving or swimming)
  •     Continued drinking despite the emotional harm it causes
  •     Tolerance to alcohol
  •     Withdrawal symptoms (like hallucinations or depression) when trying to quit or cut back

AUD is difficult to treat without medical intervention, as the treatment is physically and mentally demanding. In fact, it can be unsafe to suddenly stop drinking on your own after chronic alcohol abuse.

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (ARBD)

Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is an alcohol-related condition most common among people between 40 and 50 years old.

The Alzheimer’s Society suggests that several factors could be at play, including the following:

  • Damage to nerve cells caused by alcohol exposure
  • Damage to blood vessels, causing high blood pressure or stroke
  • Low levels of thiamine, which the brain needs in order to work properly
  • Increased risk of head injuries

ARBD can cause dementia-like symptoms, but they won’t worsen in time (as dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms often do). With proper treatment and continued support, some of the effects of ARBD can often be reversed.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a specific type of alcohol-related brain damage, caused by a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. Researchers say up to 2% of the worldwide population has this disorder.

Conditions associated with malnutrition (like cancer and anorexia) can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. However, experts say the most common social factor associated with it is alcohol abuse.

The name of this syndrome refers to Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome, which are interrelated. Wernicke encephalopathy generally causes Korsakoff syndrome. Both conditions are caused by a lack of the vitamin B1.

Wernicke encephalopathy symptoms include the following:

  •       Confusion
  •       Loss of muscle coordination
  •       Vision changes
  •       Alcohol withdrawal signs (such as hallucinations)

As acute Wernicke encephalitis symptoms fade, Korsakoff syndrome symptoms can begin, including the following:

  •       The inability to form new memories
  •       Loss of memory
  •       Hallucinations
  •       Confabulation (making up stories that a person believes to be memories, created without an intent to deceive)
Can Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

Researchers have known for decades that people with alcoholism often have smaller-than-average brains. Research conducted on animals suggests that alcohol can cause brain cell shrinking and death.

Alcohol can also lead to severe breathing difficulties, which can cause brain damage if not promptly dealt with by medical professionals.

Blackouts & Memory Lapses

A person acting with a combination of heavily impaired judgment, poor motor function, and significant memory lapses is a potential danger to themselves and those around them. 

Excessive drinking can cause what are called blackouts. When used in reference to alcohol use, this term refers to a gap in a person’s memory, caused by being so intoxicated that the brain’s method for transferring short-term memories to long-term memories becomes blocked.

During these memory lapses, a person is conscious (although likely with heavily impaired motor function and judgment). However, they may not remember parts of what they experienced later.

Blackouts may signal other issues with alcohol, such alcohol use disorder, but this is not always the case. Blackouts signal a person drank far too much alcohol and that they need to adjust their drinking habits in the future.

How Much Is Too Much?

An excessive amount of alcohol varies by person, mostly dependent on weight and gender. Moderate drinking is generally described as regulating one’s intake to two drinks or fewer in a day for men and one drink or fewer a day for women.

Notably, “one drink” is not meant in the literal sense in this context, with the amount of alcoholic drink that qualifies as “one drink” varying by the alcohol content of a beverage. These are standard drink sizes:

  • 1.5-ounces of 80-proof spirit or liquor (40% alcohol content)
  • 5-ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
  • 8-ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content)
  • 12-ounces of beer (5% alcohol content)

It is a good idea to talk to your doctor about what qualifies as “too much” alcohol for you specifically. Any alcohol consumption is too much for pregnant people, minors, people with certain health conditions, and people on medications that are affected by alcohol.

If alcohol begins to have a negative impact on your life or the lives of those around you, you’re drinking too much. If stopping is difficult for you, for any reason, read the section below for advice.

How to Stop Abusing Alcohol & Treatment Options

Stopping alcohol use is not always easy.

While we often don’t think of it as one, alcohol is a drug. A person can become physically dependent on alcohol. Their body can feel immense discomfort if they stop drinking. They may also be emotionally dependent on alcohol, using it as a coping mechanism for other issues in their life. Anyone can become addicted to alcohol.

There is no shame in being unable to stop alcohol use on your own. This is important to remember and a key part of stopping the stigma that sometimes surrounds alcohol abuse. It doesn’t say anything about your moral or intellectual character to have problems related to alcohol use.

Alcohol abuse can still damage your life and the lives of those around you. If you struggle to cut back on your drinking, or your alcohol use is negatively affecting your life in any way, it is important to seek help.

A professional addiction treatment program can help you to stop drinking safely. You’ll have medical support during the detox process, ensuring that you don’t experience life-threatening withdrawal symptoms that can result from sustained, high-level alcohol abuse.

Through a treatment program, you can access detox resources and evidence-based counseling. You’ll receive guidance on how to build a reliable, healthy support network. In many cases, you can use your health insurance to help pay for your treatment.

The CDC offers several resources to help people prevent excessive alcohol use in both themselves and their loved ones. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support. It can be the first step on a journey to a healthier life.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated February 15, 2024
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