Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances in the United States, claiming the lives of approximately 88,000 people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most people are aware of the minor side effects of alcohol, but what many don’t know is that extensive use of alcohol can lead to brain damage. Brain damage is a condition that involves the destruction or deterioration of brain cells.

Brain damage can affect certain functions that many people take for granted, including involuntary functions. It can also lead to various neurological diseases. In some cases, alcohol brain damage is irreversible, so it’s wise to either drink responsibly or refrain from drinking altogether.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

When alcohol is consumed regularly over time, it can take a toll on the brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex and regions of the cerebellum. More specifically, it may cause these portions to shrink, affecting the brain’s functions. The prefrontal cortex is linked to executive functions like planning and decision making. The cerebellum is responsible for balance and motor function. When these portions of the brain are affected, it can lead to problems with:

Even small amounts of alcohol may cause the entire brain to shrink if consumed habitually over an extended period of time. This is based on the results of a study conducted at Boston University School of Public Health. The reasons for this brain shrinkage are unclear, but alcohol is “known to dehydrate tissues, and constant dehydration can have negative effects on any sensitive tissue,” said the study.

Various other studies indicate that the smaller brains of people with alcohol abuse disorders are also lighter in weight than those without these disorders. The good news, however, is that in cases of chronic alcoholism, some effects can be reversed when the drinking stops, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Other Signs of Brain Damage

High blood alcohol content (BAC) may affect the cerebral cortex, hypothalamus, pituitary gland and medulla. This is what results in the most common minor side effects, including slow reaction time, slurred speech and sluggish movements. When the medulla (responsible for autonomic functions) is affected, it can induce sleepiness, slow breathing and decrease body temperature (hypothermia), which can be fatal.

There are still various studies being conducted to better understand how the extensive use of alcohol can lead to brain damage and which of the effects can be prevented or reversed. According to former NIAAA Director Enoch Gordis, M.D.., “More recent advances in imaging techniques are allowing investigators to study alcohol dependence itself. Scientists are beginning to measure alcohol’s effects on mood, emotional states, craving, and cognition while simultaneously assessing metabolic, physiologic, and neurochemical function in the brain.”

There have also been studies regarding the link between excessive alcohol consumption and complex brain problems, some of which are the direct result of alcohol brain damage. These include:

  • Korsakoff syndrome: chronic memory disorder caused by vitamin B1 deficiency
  • Alcoholic neuropathy: damage to peripheral nerves, which is irreversible
  • Alcoholic cerebellar degeneration: deterioration of nerve cells in the cerebellum
  • Dementia: a cognitive deficit that leads to a decline in someone’s overall function
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: brain damage or growth problems in a child incurred during a mother’s pregnancy
  • Marchiafava-Bignami Disease: a progression condition characterized by the corrosion of the corpus callosum, a nerve tract in the brain

Weighing the Risks & Benefits of Alcohol Consumption

When consumed in moderation, alcohol may have cardiovascular benefits for some people. On the other side of the spectrum, however, is the research indicating that alcohol can negatively affect the brain over a long period of time, even in small amounts. Multiple studies suggest that even moderate amounts of alcohol may be linked to brain damage in the form of shrinkage, decreasing the brain’s weight.

The reasons for alcohol-related brain shrinkage, however, are not conclusive. What is conclusive is that alcohol brain damage can result in various adverse side effects, including neurological diseases and conditions like dementia, Korsakoff syndrome and more. With all the facts considered, weighing the pros and cons of consuming alcohol begs the question: Are the benefits worth the risks?

If you’re currently living with an alcohol addiction, or you have a friend or other loved one who is, you’re not alone. The Recovery Village can help you choose a treatment program that’s best for you to live a life of sobriety. Call today to learn more.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.