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 (such as when nerve tissues in the brain are affected), so it’s wise to either drink responsibly or refrain from drinking altogether.

How Does Alcohol Damage 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 can cause these portions to shrink, affecting the brain’s functions. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions like focus, emotions, actions and memory. The cerebellum is responsible for cognitive functions such as attention, learning and language. When these portions of the brain are affected, it can lead to problems with:

  • Multitasking
  • Short-term memory
  • Organization
  • Walking in a straight line
  • Balance

Even small amounts of alcohol can cause the brain to shrink if consumed habitually over an extended period of time. This is based on the results of a study conducted by Carol Ann Paul 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 Paul.

Various other studies indicate that the smaller brains of people with alcohol misuse 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 (NIAA).
alcohol and brain damage

What Are the Other Effects of Alcohol on the Brain?

The cerebellum and prefrontal cortex aren’t the only regions of the brain that are affected by intaking large amounts of alcohol. High blood alcohol content (BAC) may also 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, such as Alzheimer’s, that results in a decline in memory

Weighing the Risks and Benefits of Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol has been proven to positively affect the heart when consumed in moderation. As many would agree, it also provides various relaxing benefits. On the other side of the spectrum, however, is the research indicating how alcohol can negatively affect the brain over a long period of time, even in small amounts. Multiple studies verify that even moderate amounts of alcohol can cause 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. With all the facts considered, weighing the pros and the cons of consuming alcohol begs the question: Are the benefits worth the risks?

If you’re currently living in the grips of alcohol, 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 and help you get the care you need so you can live a life of sobriety.