How Alcohol Addiction Impacts the Brain
In most cultures, drinking is associated with celebrations, and alcohol, even on a global level, is still considered a key element of the festivities. Societies with an ambivalent attitude towards alcohol often use weddings, birthdays and holidays as an excuse to drink alcohol.
But in between toasting and celebrating, not many people think about how alcohol impacts the brain in many ways. For recreational users, this doesn’t present a problem and there aren’t many long-term ill effects. However, even the occasional indulgence can hinder cognitive functioning and result in negative consequences.
Alcohol addiction is not a choice; it’s a deadly disease. However, it is possible to stop drinking with professional help. With that being said, let’s look a little closer at how alcohol impacts the brain.
What is Alcohol?
When you hear the alcohol, what comes to mind? Do you picture a glass of wine, or do you maybe a beer bottle? Alcohol is basically made from yeast and sugar. In both wine and beer, the active ingredient is ethanol. Fermentation is the process in which alcohol is produced. When yeast is put through the fermentation process, sugar is broken down into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Once the carbon dioxide is removed, what’s left behind is a combination of water and ethanol.
To date, alcohol is still one of the most commonly abused substances in America. Despite knowing the possible dangers of long-term alcohol consumption, many people binge drink or drink on a regular basis. In addition, despite knowing that alcohol can significantly impair the ability to drive, it’s estimated that one in 10 Americans have driven under the influence.
For those who only drink occasionally, alcohol can still produce negative short-term effects. Usually, memory impairment can start after only one or two drinks and becomes worse as alcohol consumption continues. Drinking a large amount of alcohol, particularly on an empty stomach in a short period of time, can cause blackouts. Most occasional drinkers do recover from blackout without long-lasting cognitive impairment.
Unfortunately, even for the occasional drinker, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to acute alcohol intoxication and participation in dangerous activities such as unprotected intercourse, driving while under the influence and engaging in other activities that they would not have done if they were sober. These events have the potential to result in long-term consequences.
Unlike an occasional user, someone who drinks regularly over a long period of time can develop cognitive deficits and an overall reduction in brain function. Even when heavy drinkers stop drinking, cognitive issues no longer stem from consuming alcohol but from the brain damage sustained from alcohol abuse.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, long-term alcohol consumption can impair higher levels of intellectual functioning as well as cause brain shrinkage. As such, this may impair the ability to think abstractly and the ability to remember the location of things or impairment of visuospatial ability.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
Effects of Intoxication
Sometimes with only one drink, users will have difficulty walking and talking. Speech is slurred and the reaction time is decreased. Balance can also be impaired. Users may say or do things they regret the next day.
There are three basics forms of memory. Sensory memory only lasts a few seconds. Short-term memory lasts for several minutes and long-term memory( also referred to as storage) can last indefinitely. Alcohol addiction negatively affects each form of memory.
Blackouts occur when short-term memory is impaired. They can occur in two ways: en bloc or in fragments. Blackouts that occur in fragments cause memory loss for a short period of time, whereas en bloc blackouts cause a complete loss of a period of time. Both are caused by damage to the brain from alcohol dependence.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
In addition to liver cirrhosis and a myriad of other health issues, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is by far one of the worst effects of alcohol addiction. In addition to amnesia-like symptoms.
Symptoms of WKS can include:
- Visual disturbances
- Impaired muscle coordination
- Persistent memory problems
- Impaired learning ability
Thankfully, some types of cognitive impairment are reversible. Through abstinence, it is possible to regain higher levels of cognitive functioning, particularly those related to problem-solving abilities. In addition, people suffering from alcohol dependence may also have improvement in short-term memory when they abstain from drinking alcohol.
Alcohol affects a person’s brain in so many ways, none of which are beneficial. Binge drinking or being buzzed simply isn’t worth it. For those suffering from alcohol dependence, know that alcohol is extremely addictive. Once someone starts abusing alcohol, their brains need it just to function normally. However, all hope isn’t lost. Wanting to stop is the first step on the road to recovery. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol, contact us for information on how to help.