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How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain? Short- and Long-Term Effects

Alcohol doesn’t just affect you by making you feel sedated, it also affects your thinking, decision making, emotions, memory, involuntary processes like breathing, and voluntary process like moving and walking. When you drink heavily, you may notice alcohol’s effects on all of these areas of your brain. Alcohol may also affect other neurotransmitters in the brain like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals are linked to emotion, reward, and energy levels.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol has some profound acute effects on the brain. Acute refers to the immediate and intense effects that may come with alcohol intoxication. Anyone who’s ever had a few too many or seen others that engaged in binge drinking knows that it can dramatically change your behavior. Alcohol can also have some physical effects, like motor skill impairment, muscle weakness, or slurred speech. Alcohol can lead to aggression, depression, and levels of confidence that are uncharacteristic of people in their everyday life. How does this happen?

Alcohol is a depressant, but it also affects chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which can increase your mood and energy levels. This usually plays out as exciting and energizing effects as your blood-alcohol level increases and depressing effects as your BAC plateaus and starts to drop. This can cause excitement, lowered inhibitions, lowered social anxiety, increased talking, and euphoria. As alcohol wears off you may feel relaxed, sedated, depressed, and muscle weakness.

More severe effects can come from higher doses of the drug. You may experience increased irritability, aggression, depression, anxiety, lowered motor function, slurred speech, nausea, stupor, and memory impairment. At around 0.3 BAC, you may start to experience dangerous alcohol intoxication and overdose symptoms. This may mean severe nervous system impairment that can lower your heart rate, body temperature, and slow your breathing. You may also be extremely confused, and you could slip in and out of consciousness. If you continue drinking after this, your risk of death increases. An alcohol overdose can become fatal when your breathing or heart rate stops. 

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Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

If you drink consistently over a long period of time, alcohol may have some significant long-term effects on your brain. Alcohol can have a profound effect on people that struggle with an alcohol use disorder for long periods of time. Long-term alcohol misuse is associated with serious problems related to your liver, and it’s also been linked to certain types of cancer. However, it may also affect brain function, and lead to issues like dementia. One of the most obvious long-term effects of alcohol misuse is an alcohol use disorder. Repeated alcohol misuse can lead to changes in the brain that cause chemical dependence and addiction. 

Dependence occurs when your brain adapts to rely on alcohol to maintain a chemical balance. If you stop drinking, you’ll feel uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, these symptoms can be dangerous, causing seizures and heart failure. Addiction is a compulsive need to drink despite the consequences. If left unaddressed, addiction can get out of control, affecting many areas of your life. 

Heavy alcohol use over many years may lead to learning and memory problems, dementia, and a suffering performance at school or work. Chronic alcoholism can also cause something called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). WKS occurs because of a lack of vitamin B-1 and malnourishment, which are commonly found in heavy drinkers. WKS can lead to vision problems, loss of muscle coordination, and confusion. Less common symptoms include hallucinations and amnesia.

How Does Addiction Happen?

Addiction is a chronic disease that affects the reward center of the brain. An addiction related to alcohol is officially diagnosed as an alcohol use disorder. It’s unknown why addiction and alcoholism can happen to some people and not others. For instance, around 30 to 40% of college-aged people binge drink. However, not all of those students graduate from college with a degree and a new alcohol use disorder. However, binging and heavy alcohol use can result in addiction for many people. 

Addiction may develop through a combination of many factors. Heredity and genetic components seem to play a significant role. That means if you have a parent or grandparent that has struggled with an alcohol use disorder, your chances of developing one are higher. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there are also several environmental and developmental factors that can increase or lower your risk of developing a substance use disorder. These factors can include parental supervision, peer drug use, high drug availability at school, and socioeconomic factors.

Alcohol next to a model of a brain

Addiction also develops as a disease with actual changes in the brain, especially when it comes to the reward center of the brain. Alcohol interacts with a chemical called dopamine, which is closely tied to feelings of reward and pleasure. The chemical is important to your reward center, which is designed to encourage you to repeat healthy activities. The promise of reward and the cravings your brain causes for things like a warm meal, help motivate you to maintain a healthy diet. It also encourages other healthy activities like finding shelter, getting good sleep, and developing relationships. 

However, the effect alcohol has on dopamine, and other feel-good chemicals like serotonin manipulate your reward center to cause you to treat it like one of these important healthy tasks. Alcohol can cause a euphoric relaxing feeling that makes drinking a pleasurable experience, despite side effects. As your brain learns that alcohol can be a powerful source of reward, you start to feel compulsions to drink again, especially in response to negative emotions. Before long, you drink to feel normal or to avoid negative feelings or withdrawal symptoms, not socially and not as a form of recreation. Ultimately, addiction is identified by compulsive use despite significant consequences to your health, relationships, and other aspects of your life. 

Alcohol’s Effects on Adolescents

Excessive drinking may be particularly harmful to adolescents. Teens and young adults go through a period of brain development until their early to mid-20s. Excessive alcoholism during this developmental period may stunt growth and lead to cognitive impairment.

 Alcohol may interfere with a process of increased myelination. Myline is the white matter that covers nerve cells and increases conductivity in brain signals. In other words, it helps you think faster and more efficiently. One study found that adolescents who drank excessively showed signs of damage to the myelin in their brains. 

Early exposure to alcohol may also increase a person’s likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder later in life. While alcoholism and heavy drinking can be dangerous at any age, adolescent drinking may lead to even more long-term problems.

Sources

CDC. (2021, January 14). Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health. learn the facts. Retrieved February 12, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

Krause, L. (2018, September 17). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: RISKS, causes, symptoms, and more. Retrieved February 12, 2021 from https://www.healthline.com/health/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome#diagnosis

Krieger, H., Young, C., Anthenien, A., & Neighbors, C. (2018). The epidemiology of binge drinking Among College-Age individuals in the United States. Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6104967/

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, May 25). What are risk factors and protective factors? Retrieved February 12, 2021 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/preventing-drug-use-among-children-adolescents/chapter-1-risk-factors-protective-factors/what-are-risk-factors

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020, February 18). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

University of Massachusetts Amherst. (2014, October 28). Adolescent binge drinking reduces brain myelin, impairs cognitive and behavioral control. Retrieved February 12, 2021 from https://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/adolescent-binge-drinking-reduces-brain#:~:text=In%20a%20separate%20experiment%2C%20they,myelin%20in%20the%20prefrontal%20cortex

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