How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain?

Alcohol affects the brain in a number of different ways. Drinking alcohol in heavy amounts can negatively affect your mental health and cause blackouts. Alcohol addiction can cause brain damage that can have lasting consequences on your cognitive function.

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Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS


Alcohol affects the brain by slowing down or impairing brain functions such as perception, motor control, and even critical functions that the brain controls automatically.

The overproduction of acetaldehyde and the deficiency of thiamine that result from alcohol use disorder can lead to significant brain damage.

Some of alcohol’s effects may include learning deficiency, memory loss, and loss of basic motor control.

The Way Alcohol Affects Brain Function

When you drink a small or moderate amount of alcohol, it feels like a stimulant because it lowers inhibitions so that you want to talk more or do things that you wouldn’t normally do.

In reality, alcohol is depressing brain function and impairing your ability to do things that you would normally be able to do without any thought.

Alcohol does this by impacting many of the major parts of the brain.

Depresses The Cerebral Cortex Function

The very thing that makes you think alcohol is a stimulant (namely, the lack of inhibition) is actually the result of alcohol depressing the cerebral cortex of the brain.

The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that makes decisions based on the information it gathers from the senses. In other words, it is responsible for your good judgment (or lack thereof).

The reason alcohol lowers your inhibitions and can lead to poor decisions is that it is depressing your cerebral cortex.

Impairs Cerebellum Function

If you engage in heavy drinking or binge drinking and notice that you are having trouble standing up or grasping things, it is because alcohol is impairing your cerebellum.

The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls what you think, your overall awareness of your surroundings, and your motor skills. Decreased cerebellum function is why, for example, you should never drink and drive.

Disrupts The Flow Between Endocrine And Nervous Systems

If excessive alcohol use goes on for a long period of time becoming an alcohol use disorder, it can disrupt the flow of communication between the endocrine and nervous systems.

In particular, this poor communication can damage hormone levels.

In addition to behavioral issues, it can lead to the following physiological problems:

  • bone disease
  • immune problems
  • growth defects
  • cancer
  • thyroid problems
  • reproductive deficiencies
  • stress abnormalities

Depresses Medulla Function

The part of the brain called the medulla is what controls and regulates all the things you don’t think about, like heart rate, body temperature, and breathing.

While alcohol can sometimes make you feel warm, it actually lowers your body temperature. As heavy amounts of alcohol depress the medulla you can overdose, lose consciousness, and possibly die.

Slows The Central Nervous System

In general, alcohol broadly affects your ability to think and move, because it depresses your central nervous system.

Because the central nervous system is connected to the spinal cord, this slows down messages the brain sends to the body, making thought and movement slower as well.

Short-Term Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain

The short-term effects of alcohol can range from moderate to severe impairment of brain function, depending on how much a person drinks, how quickly he or she drinks it, and other factors.

With just a couple of drinks, alcohol begins to impair decision-making. Add several more drinks to that and you can experience lapses of short-term memory or even blackouts.

A blackout results from heavy alcohol consumption that continues until you don’t know where you are or what you are doing.

Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain

Alcohol can also have long-term effects on different areas of the brain. This can result in memory loss and confusion as well as the loss of certain motor functions.

While it is a myth that drinking alcohol kills brain cells, people who are heavy drinkers for a long period of time can seriously damage their cognition.

Find out more about long-term effects of alcohol use.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

For people who have had an alcohol use disorder resulting in prolonged, heavy alcohol consumption, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be severe. This is because the brain has been depressed for so long.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • heavy sweating
  • anxiety
  • agitation
  • visual and audio disturbances

Cognitive Impairment

Cognitive impairment describes the deficit in what you know and how you know it.

When alcohol dependence goes on for a long time, it impairs your ability to:

  • reason
  • make decision
  • solve problems
  • perceive surroundings
  • understand or use language
  • create mental images
  • form memories

Brain Shrinkage

Drinking alcohol heavily and for extended periods of time can actually shrink your brain. When your brain shrinks, it means that you have incurred brain damage.

Studies have shown that both men and women develop more brain shrinkage because of heavy alcohol use than people who are not addicted to alcohol.

This brain damage results in learning impairment and memory loss. Studies also indicate that women incur the same amount of shrinkage as men, but they usually had been drinking for only about half as long.

Effects On Neurotransmitters

Studies suggest that alcohol affects the brain through neurotransmitters, resulting in changes to functions like inhibition. Over the short term, sensitivity to these transmitters is increased.

However, over the long term, the sensitivity of neurotransmission is decreased and neurons in the brain are damaged.

This is possibly why suddenly stopping alcohol results in tremors, because the neurotransmitters are over-reacting after extended periods of being depressed.

Effects On Memory

Alcohol’s effects on memory can range from mild to severe. In the long term, heavy alcohol consumption can result in the loss of memories that you have made.

But it can go further than that and affect your ability to make and keep new memories, a condition commonly referred to as alcohol dementia.


Brain Dysfunction From Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Long-term alcohol consumption can lead to a disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) which affects the hippocampus among other parts of the brain. This syndrome, also called wet brain, has two distinct disorders.

The Wernicke portion of the syndrome is called Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This syndrome describes brain damage that comes from excessive alcohol use over long periods of time.

This type of brain damage can result in:

  • poor muscle coordination
  • paralysis of nerves
  • confusion

Alcohol-Induced Psychosis

Alcohol-induced psychosis is described by the second part of WKS which is called Korsakoff’s psychosis.

People who have Korsakoff’s psychosis not only have difficulty with coordination but also experience confusion and are quickly frustrated.

In addition, they have retrograde and anterograde amnesia, which means that they have trouble with both remembering things and learning new things.

Can You Reverse Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage?

What is common among people who have alcohol-related brain damage, especially those who have WKS, is often a thiamine deficiency.

When WKS is caught early, doctors can treat it with thiamine and improve some function and clarity.

However, if WKS is in its advanced stage, the focus of care is on helping the person and their loved ones or family manage those symptoms.

Treatment Options For Alcohol Addiction

There are treatments for alcohol use disorder that address all the needs of someone addicted to alcohol.

These needs may include detox, medication-assisted treatment, psychiatry, and evidence-based treatment
(therapy). With these tools and a treatment center to help you, you can achieve sobriety.

Find Treatment For Alcohol Use Disorder Today

Alcohol addiction can have debilitating effects on your brain. The time to begin treatment is now.

At Bedrock Recovery Center, we understand the many different ways alcohol addiction can affect your brain and body, and we’ll design a treatment plan that addresses your unique needs.

If you want to achieve sobriety, call our helpline to be connected to our treatment center.

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information
  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information
  3. National Center for Biotechnology Information,Chronic%20consumption%20of%20a%20large%20amount%20of%20alcohol%20disrupts%20the,at%20physiological%20and%20behavioral%20levels.
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  6. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus
  7. New York Office of Addiction Services and Supports

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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