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The Serious Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

By  Zawn Villines
Alcohol-related brain damage can cause dementia and a host of other maladies. Here's what you need to know, and how to get help with problem drinking.

Most Americans drink, with about a third having at least one drink a day. The ubiquitous nature of alcohol in social life conceals an important fact: alcohol is a drug, and a potentially lethal one. In fact, alcohol contributes to 2.6 percent of American deaths each year.

While moderate alcohol consumption may offer some health benefits, compulsive or binge drinking can damage the brain. Alcohol brain damage symptoms vary from person to person, and are often similar to other symptoms, such as dementia. Here's what you need to know about how drinking might damage your brain.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol immediately changes brain chemistry. "When consumed, alcohol increases activity of GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, and suppresses activity of the neurons, causing slurred speech, unsteady gait, lapses in short-term memory and slowed reflexes," Marina Tsoy-Podosenin, MD, PhD, an addiction psychiatrist and a Clinical Assistant Professor at Stony Brook Medicine Department of Psychiatry, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

If a person drinks enough, they may blackout, which means they cannot remember what happened. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one survey found that about 40 percent of students who reported drinking said they had blacked out at least once in the prior year.

The brain chemistry changes associated with drinking may take a person through a wide range of moods, including euphoria, depression, mania, aggression, anger, and confusion. Too much drinking in a short period of time may even slow a person's breathing and heart rate, causing a coma.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

"If heavy drinking continues over a long period of time, it causes chronic changes in neurotransmitter activity and even structural abnormalities. Imaging studies done on patients with alcoholism show atrophy in the brain regions responsible for short-term and long-term memory, balance and emotions," says Tsoy-Podosenin.

Some potential long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • cardiovascular health issues that increase the risk of stroke
  • brain shrinkage
  • poor circulation to the brain
  • dementia
  • nutritional deficiencies that may damage the brain or cause an alcohol-related type of dementia called Korsakoff syndrome
  • mental health issues, including hallucinations and psychosis
  • changes in mood or personality

Chronic alcohol exposure in children and babies may stunt brain development. During pregnancy, fetal alcohol exposure can cause a complex group of symptoms called fetal alcohol syndrome.

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

It is a myth that drinking kills brain cells. Instead, alcohol damages the brain in other ways, for instance, by damaging the ends of neurons. This can make it difficult for those neurons to send important nerve signals. Alcohol may also damage the brain by increasing the risk of strokes, head injuries, and accidents.

Get Help Now

No matter how long you have had a drinking problem, now is the best time to stop drinking. Quitting alcohol may help reverse some alcohol-related brain damage, prevent premature death, and reduce the risk of further damage.

Alcoholism is not a personal failing. And quitting drinking requires the right combination of mental health support, including therapy. The right environment can also make a big difference, so avoid people and places that trigger drinking. 

If doing so feels impossible, inpatient rehab might offer an environment where initiating sobriety feels more manageable.