Unnecessary damage: Alcohol and the brain

Alcohol damages the brain’s structure and function in a handful of ways.

Thirty seconds flat. That’s about how long it takes for the alcohol you drink to start affecting your brain.

Alcohol acts mostly on the brain’s nerve cells, slowing the communication that forms the foundation of brain function. When these cells aren’t communicating quickly and accurately, judgment, coordination, memory and thinking all suffer.

If you keep drinking, these functions keep eroding, leading to stumbling, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reactions and memory problems—a group of symptoms generally associated with someone who’s drunk.

Though you may only feel the effects of alcohol for a limited time, research shows that alcohol use can affect the brain in ways that far outlast the morning after. Studies have linked long-term, heavy drinking to changes in emotions, personality, perception, memory and learning.

In severe cases, drinking can lead to Korsakoff’s syndrome, which causes a dramatic loss of short-term memory. People with this syndrome forget the events of daily life as soon as they occur, can’t coordinate their muscle movements and may be too confused to even find their way out of a room.

The damage done

Research shows that alcohol can damage the structure and function of the brain through numerous routes, including:

Tissue damage. Imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy have been used to compare the brain’s appearance and activity in heavy drinkers with the brains of people who don’t drink.

The results have shown that long-term, heavy drinkers have smaller brains than people who don’t drink. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), tissue damage is especially visible in the frontal lobes, which are involved in learning and remembering things, and in the cerebellum, which controls movement and coordination. Changes in brain activity have also been found throughout the major brain regions of heavy drinkers, according to the NIAAA.

Chemical changes. Alcohol affects the chemicals and proteins that carry messages from one part of the brain to another, making communication between brain regions more difficult.

Vitamin deficiencies. Heavy drinking can also lead to vitamin deficiencies, which in turn can starve the body (including the brain) of vital nutrients. Thiamine is especially important for brain function and is often in low supply in the bodies of heavy drinkers. Thiamine supplements can sometimes help improve brain function lost to alcohol.

Damage to related organs. Alcohol also interferes with liver function. When the liver can’t work efficiently to remove toxins from the bloodstream, these toxins build up in the body and blood, leading to tissue damage in organs, including the brain.

Hard to predict

Brain damage from drinking alcohol develops more quickly in some people than in others. According to the NIAAA, some of the factors that affect your risk for brain damage from alcohol include:

  • How much and how often you drink.
  • The age at which you started drinking and how long you’ve been drinking.
  • Your age, education level, sex and family history of alcohol addiction.
  • Whether your mother drank alcohol while she was pregnant with you.
  • Your general health.

Stop the damage

Brain damage from alcohol may improve when a person stops drinking, but sometimes the damage is irreversible. As a rule, long-term, heavy drinkers who stop drinking can slowly recover brain functions such as memory, attention and brain volume.

No matter how long you’ve been drinking, stopping now could help your body and brain work better.