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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, a key part of the way the brain communicates with the body. While the body can process alcohol, it can only process small amounts at once. As a human (or any other mammal) drinks increasing amounts of alcohol, its effect is amplified.

In the short-term, alcohol can affect the following:

  • Balance
  • Speech
  • Judgment
  • Memory

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

Abusing alcohol can have long-term health effects on the brain and, by extension, the rest of the body. Some potential long-term effects are discussed below, such as the possibility of developing alcohol use disorder and other conditions.

Long-term alcohol use can alter neurons in the brain, reducing their size and fundamentally changing the nature of the brain in a negative way. This damage is compounded over time with high levels of alcohol consumption.

Importantly, alcohol can also affect the way brains develop in the early stages of life, which is one reason it is not a good idea for minors to drink alcohol. Over time, alcohol can radically alter the development of the brain in adolescents and young adults, causing long-lasting harm to their brain structure.

This is all in addition to numerous other ways that alcohol can permanently impact the body, including increasing a person’s cancer risks and damaging the liver.

Alcohol-Related Brain Diseases & Conditions

Various brain diseases and conditions are triggered by high-level, long-term alcohol consumption. Here are some of them:

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is the condition most people mean when discussing less defined terms such as alcoholism and alcohol addiction.

As a person drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, they can begin to crave alcohol both physically and mentally, struggling to stop drinking even when it begins to affect their physical health and important elements of their life, such as work and social relationships. This is often a sign a person has developed alcohol use disorder (or AUD).

Experts who specialize in treating these kinds of conditions can help you in ways that make going through withdrawal and avoiding future abuse much easier.

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
  • Excessive alcohol use on a frequent basis
  • Consistently engaging in unsafe behaviors under the influence of alcohol
  • Experiencing significant withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking

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. It is caused by excessive drinking, which is toxic to a person’s nerve cells. Over time, this causes brain cells to die.

This damage can cause symptoms similar to dementia, although recovery is often still possible if one gets proper treatment, which is not the case with true dementia. With proper treatment and continued support, some of the effects of ARBD can be reversed.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a specific type of alcohol-related brain damage, caused by a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. While not exclusively an alcohol-related condition, alcohol use disorder is one of the most common reasons people develop this deficiency.

The name of this syndrome refers to Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome, which are interrelated. Wernicke encephalopathy generally causes Korsakoff syndrome.

Wernicke encephalopathy occurs as a result of the brain damage vitamin B1 deficiency can cause to the thalamus and hypothalamus. Symptoms include the following:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Vision changes
  • Potentially coma or death

If the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy go away, a person can then develop Korsakoff syndrome. This can result in several major memory problems, including these:

  • 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)

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

Alcohol abuse can kill brain cells over time. It can also lead to breathing difficulties and circulatory problems, which can potentially cause severe brain damage if not promptly dealt with by medical professionals.

Drinking at a moderate level is unlikely to cause brain damage. This is discussed more in the “How Much Is Too Much?” section.

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 cisgender men and one drink or fewer a day for cisgender 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.

Updated June 8, 2023
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