How does alcohol affect the brain? This is a great question that you may not know the full answer to. You know that when you drink too much, you end up getting drunk, but why? What is it that it does in the brain that causes this to happen? It’s important to know the connection between alcohol and the brain, especially if you’re a heavy drinker. You may even know someone who drinks a lot, and you want to warn them. Most people who drink excessively have no idea how alcohol affects the brain.
How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?
The effects of alcohol on the brain frequently go underdiagnosed. Heavy alcohol use, especially over long periods of time, has serious ramifications on your brain function in ways that are difficult or impossible to reverse. Research is still being conducted on this topic because science has yet to fully understand the human brain.
However, experts know that the effects of extended use are so severe that they can be mistaken for Alzheimer’s or dementia in the elderly. Of course, there are other negative effects, including liver disease.
What Happens When You Get Drunk?
Alcohol is a depressant that works in multiple phases. In the first stage, you feel great. That’s because drinking releases dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is the “reward” substance in your brain that makes you feel good about what you’re doing. While your brain is feeling rewarded by your drinking, your stomach and liver are working overtime to process the alcohol and prevent it from getting into your bloodstream. In small quantities, your body can do that, which is why drinks with low alcohol content never seem to be effective.
The initial rush usually lasts about a half-hour and is a big reason why people never stop at “just one drink.” If you’re still drinking consistently, the depressive effects kick in. These effects are the ones that slow movement and reaction speed and block the parts of your brain that work as behavioral inhibitors. This is why people are more prone to making decisions while drunk that they wouldn’t have made normally. In extreme cases, drunkenness may lead to a blackout and memory loss.
Understanding Blackouts and Memory Problems
Impaired memory development is another way how alcohol affects the brain. Blackouts generally occur because the person has had too much to drink in too short a period of time. Alcohol, in too large a quantity, impairs the brain’s ability to transfer memories from short-term to long-term memory, which is why people who black out may be unable to remember large parts of their time intoxicated.
However, one thing worth noting is that blackouts are not exactly caused by a large amount of alcohol consumption. They are specifically caused by a sharp spike in blood-alcohol content. In other words, you’re more like to blackout having six drinks in one hour than if you had 10 drinks slowly over the course of several hours.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
When you drink too much—even if it’s your first time—you’re going to experience the negative effects. These might include:
- Slurring your speech
- Becoming drowsy
- Having problems with your vision and hearing
- Problems with your judgment and making decisions
- Problems with your coordination
- Blackouts and memory lapses
It’s even possible to fall unconscious or go into a coma. When this occurs, it’s usually because you’ve suffered from alcohol poisoning. This can happen if you underestimate the impact that drinking so much can have on you.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Long-term alcohol use can cause long-term problems with the brain, even if you don’t binge drink or regularly get drunk. It’s most common to see symptoms in someone who has been a heavy drinker for a long time. But long-term changes in the brain can result from either a single instance of heavy drinking or an extended period of moderate drinking. Many factors go into determining risk factors for alcohol affecting the brain, like:
- How much a person drinks
- How often a person drinks
- What age the person began drinking
- How long the person has been drinking
- Education level
- Genes and family history
- General health
Long-term effects of alcohol can include brain shrinkage, changes in the brain’s white matter, damage to nerve cells, loss of coordination and balance function, and impaired thinking and reasoning skills.
Severe Abuse of Alcohol and the Brain
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a condition that is quite common among people with alcohol use disorder. It’s caused because Vitamin B1 is deficient in the body due to excessive drinking. WKS is actually a combination of two different conditions—Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome.
The symptoms of WKS include:
- Bouts of confusion – Since the brain can’t process as quickly with WKS, a person may experience regular bouts of not understanding conversations, where they are, or what exactly is happening.
- The loss of mental activity can progress into a coma and, eventually, death – WKS can lead to a coma or death if left untreated.
- Difficulty with coordination and balance – The brain damage caused by WKS affects how you use your muscles, making it difficult for people with this disorder to move around without falling or bumping into things.
- Difficulty forming new memories – The brain damage caused by WKS also affects how we’re able to form and store new memories, making it difficult for a person with the syndrome to remember events that happened after the onset of the disorder.
- Changes in vision – WKS can cause changes in vision, such as double or blurred vision.
- Having hallucinations – Some people with WKS can experience hallucinations, where they see or hear things that aren’t actually there.
For someone who develops this condition, it cannot be reversed. Treatment can be prescribed to keep it from progressing.
Northpoint Washington Offers Alcohol Addiction Rehab
At Northpoint Washington, we have an exceptional alcohol rehab and detox program. We know the connections between alcohol and the brain are difficult to overcome on your own, which is why we’re here to help.
With our professional support, you can overcome the disease of alcoholism. Isn’t it time that you made the decision to get help and protect your brain from the effects of alcohol? Please contact us today at 425.437.3298 if you’d like more information.