How Alcohol Affects The Brain

Alcohol’s effects on the brain explain why it’s an addictive substance. Ethanol activates the pleasure receptors, creating short-lived bursts of dopamine and serotonin.

Alcohol Use Disorder Part 2: How Alcohol Affects The Brain

Estimated watch time: 5 mins


The active ingredient in alcohol, ethanol, can have a complex effect on the brain. When you drink alcohol, ethanol impacts the brain’s pleasure center and neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These effects can lead to feelings of drunkenness and eventual addiction.

This video explores the short-term effects of alcohol on your brain and how these contribute to the development of alcohol use disorders.

Video Materials:


Alcohol Use Disorder Part 2

This lesson will discuss the neurochemistry of alcohol.

Alcoholic beverages contain ethanol. If you think about it….beer, wine, whiskey, gin, vodka, and tequila all contain ethanol. And ethanol is the active ingredient that affects the brain. Ethanol works in many areas of the brain. Today, I am going to cover only the main areas of the brain that ethanol acts on.

Ethanol decreases activity of a neurochemical in our brains called GABA.  GABA stands for Gamma Aminobutyric Acid. A big word, so we just use the abbreviation GABA. 

When you activate the GABA receptors, it is like turning off a light switch. When GABA receptors are activated, they decrease the activity of the brain. An example is if you drank too much alcohol, you fall asleep or you could start slurring your words, you could have difficulty walking, riding a bicycle or driving.

If the only thing alcohol did was decrease the activity of GABA, I do not think it would be nearly as popular because it would just make you fall asleep., It would be like taking a sleeping pill. 

Ethanol also activates opioid receptors, which are pleasure receptors.

Because ethanol also activates the opioid receptors, this ultimately results in the release of dopamine and serotonin.   

The brain is very, very complicated. In the center of our brains is an area called the pleasure center. This is where the reward pathway is for almost all drugs of abuse, nicotine, and cannabis and alcohol.

Serotonin is very strongly affiliated with mood. The more serotonin you have in your brain, generally, the happier you are. Most antidepressants work to increase your serotonin and it may take 6 weeks or longer to improve your mood from depression.

Dopamine is in our pleasure center. There is a difference between happy and pleasure.  Pleasure is the wow. And ultimately when dopamine is released. We get a wow.  When you drink alcohol, you get rewards from pleasure to euphoria, which often leads to more drinking in search of more WOW.

In addition to the pleasure center, there are other parts of the brain that get affected by alcohol. The cerebral cortex is really the top of your brain from your forehead all the way back. The cerebral cortex deals with thought processing, learning and speech. It is our executive function. And if this is slowed down due to alcohol, which ethanol does, we can have trouble thinking or speaking or even making good judgment decisions.

We also have a very primitive part of our brain. It does what we call automatic functions. This area controls our breathing, our consciousness, and our body temperature. Obviously, we do not think about them. Do you ever think about how it is to breathe, or do you think about how you control your body temperature? No, the brain takes care of it.  You do not have a lot of control over it.

Obviously, you can breathe anytime, but automatic breathing is part of the primitive area of the brain. 

And again, too much ethanol can lead to sleepiness.  Slow down your breathing, lower your body temperature. And ultimately, excessive alcohol consumption could lead to death.

What we have here is dopamine versus serotonin. I mentioned it earlier, the dopamine produces a feeling of pleasure. A big Wow. Serotonin produces a feeling of happiness for us or joy—more of a very small wow. We need both of them. The good news is that many things in our lives give us both of them. The difference between pleasure and happiness is short lived versus big picture.  If you intend today is to go out, drink alcohol to celebrate something.  That is very short lived. You are celebrating an event.  If you drink under two alcoholic beverages over 2-3 hours, you will generally be “okay” unless you have an alcohol use disorder where you would not stop at two alcoholic beverages.

Drinking may give you short-term pleasure, and it is not going to give you long-term happiness. You might be happy while you are drinking. To maintain happiness, it is working on big picture issues including self-help skills, developing interests, enhancing relationships and getting a life.

The next lesson will cover the physical effects of alcohol.

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