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Does Alcohol Use Cause Brain Damage?

Man puts hands against mirror in agony, after learning that alcohol can cause brain damage

Most people have experienced the side effects of excessive alcohol usage at least once in their life. Staggering, slurred speech, blurry vision, and loss of motor skills are just a few of the most common indicators that someone has had too much to drink. These behaviors occur when drinking because of the way that alcohol affects the brain. These symptoms will last for a couple of hours depending on how much alcohol has been consumed. Eventually, the toxic substance will leave the body and these side effects will resolve on their own- leaving just a painful hangover in their place. However, when someone starts to consume alcohol heavily and on a regular basis, some of these more serious cognitive side effects can linger long after the drinking ends. Over an extended period of time, excessive drinking can lead to severe brain damage including irreversible memory loss and wet brain. [bottom-inline-cta]

How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain?

Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant, causing thoughts, speech, and movement to slow down when drinking. This happens when consuming alcohol because the substance directly affects the brain’s chemistry by altering the levels of neurotransmitters- which are responsible for moving signals around the body that control processes such as thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Most notably, consuming alcohol suppresses the neurotransmitter that controls excitement while increasing other neurotransmitters that inhibit the brain’s activity. This combination is responsible for producing the sedative side effects of alcohol usage including symptoms like slurred speech and stumbling. The more a person drinks, the slower the body and brain are to react. If too much alcohol is consumed in a short amount of time, it can lead to a period of memory loss known as a blackout. Consuming alcohol also increases the levels of the “feel-good” chemical, dopamine, in the brain. The release of dopamine tricks the brain into thinking that consuming alcohol makes it feel great when in reality, drinking alters the brain’s chemistry in a way that enhances feelings of depression in the long run. While the severity of the side effects of alcohol usage varies from person to person, several factors have been shown to directly influence how alcohol affects brain function:

  • How often someone drinks
  • How much someone drinks in one sitting
  • The age a person begins drinking
  • The number of years a person has been drinking
  • A person’s gender, age, and genetic factors
  • A family history of alcoholism
  • The person’s general health

Alcohol’s effect on the brain can be felt after just one drink for some, while others will have to drink more in order to feel drunk. Regardless of how many drinks it takes to actually feel the effects, alcohol begins influencing the brain as soon as it enters the body. If used, the brain may sustain serious and lifelong injuries.

Alcohol-Related Brain Impairment (ARBI)

Repeated alcohol use over long periods of time will affect the brain in toxic ways. Depending on what part of the brain has been damaged, symptoms can include depression, reckless behavior, impaired judgment, poor memory recall, lack of coordination and a range of other side effects. This group of problems is collectively known as alcohol-related brain impairment (ARBI). While frequent heavy drinkers are more likely to experience ARBI, binge drinkers are also at risk for developing any of these impairments. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains that long-term, heavy drinking can actually shrink the size of the brain and cause the brain’s inner cavity to grow larger. This change in the brain’s mass is believed to be the cause of the variety of debilitating side effects listed above. However, many of these symptoms are reversible. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism goes on to explain that abstaining from alcohol for several months or a year can allow time for structural brain changes to correct themselves. Abstaining from alcohol after a long period of heavy drinking may also help improve attention, memory and problem-solving skills.

Wet Brain

Wet brain, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a form of brain damage that develops from repeat and heavy exposure to alcohol. This condition stems from a deficiency of a thiamine, or vitamin B1. Those who regularly use alcohol typically have a poor diet and as a result, do not get the recommended daily amount of thiamine. Additionally, alcohol hinders the body’s ability to absorb thiamine. Instead, the body lives off of the thiamine that has been stored in the liver until the supply has been completely depleted. Wet brain occurs in two stages:

  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy: The first stage of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by biochemical lesions of the nervous system. The lesions can cause impaired muscle coordination, a confused mental state, and paralysis of the nerves used to control eye movement. If treated immediately with thiamine injections, these symptoms can improve.
  • Korsakoff’s psychosis: The second stage of this Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome results from permanent damage to the part of the brain responsible for memory. People suffering from Korsakoff’s psychosis may have severe memory loss, difficulties making new memories, and experience visual or auditory hallucinations. Unfortunately, around 80 perfect of Wernicke-Korsakoff patients who use alcohol will eventually develop the Korsakoff’s psychosis, the more severe second stage of this condition.

While some symptoms of the wet brain can be treated in order to reverse the negative side effects of alcohol use, total recovery is unlikely.

Hepatic Encephalopathy

Hepatic encephalopathy is damage to the brain as a result of liver failure. The liver is one of the most essential organs in the body. It screens toxins out of the bloodstream in order to keep the body healthy. When someone is struggling with alcohol use, the liver can become severely overworked and damaged as it tries to rid the blood of the toxic alcohol. When the liver fails, toxic chemicals are able to make their way to the brain and can cause slurred speech, disorientation, sudden mood changes, lethargy and in severe cases, coma.

Brain Damage From Alcohol Use

The brain can sustain serious damage from alcohol use. While some of the conditions cause lifelong brain impairments, many side effects are reversible after a period of abstinence from alcohol and the right alcoholism treatment methods. If you or a loved are experiencing symptoms of brain damage due to repeated and heavy alcohol use, call a treatment specialist today at 844-470-0410.