How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Different areas of the brain are responsible for different tasks within the body. Alcohol has a profound effect on these complex structures of the brain. Chronic alcohol use has damaging effects on the brain, ranging from minor to permanent conditions. Even moderate drinking can lead to certain dangerous impairments.

Alcohol Affects all Areas of the Brain

The brain is the body’s central control center. Essentially, the brain makes you who you are. It’s a part of what makes up the central nervous system along with billions of neurons, nerves, and the spinal cord. The entire central nervous system feels the effects of alcohol with the brain being particularly vulnerable.

The brain includes the following sections which control different functions:

  • The frontal lobe: decision-making, problem-solving, and planning
  • The temporal lobe: memory, emotion, language, and hearing
  • The occipital lobe: vision
  • The parietal lobe: reception and processing of sensory information
  • The cerebellum: coordination, skilled movement, posture, and balance
  • The brainstem: heart rate, breathing, sleeping, and eating

When an individual drinks alcohol, it quickly enters the bloodstream and into the brain. After entering the brain, it affects the neurotransmitters that send messages to one another through electrical impulses. The neurotransmitters either increase or decrease brain activity through these signals. Unlike most other addictive drugs, alcohol hit a large number of neurotransmitters at once. The more alcohol is consumed, the more areas of the brain that are affected. Eventually, alcohol affects all areas of the brain.

First Stage

Alcohol is able to reach the brain through blood cells. The first part of the brain that is affected by alcohol is the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the cerebellum. The cerebral cortex consists of the four lobes listed above that control the basic human functions. This causes the individual to be more talkative and less inhibited. The cerebral cortex is responsible for conscious thought, social interaction, language, and other aspects of an individual’s personality. All of which are affected and run less efficiently when under the influence of alcohol.

Second Stage

After reaching the cerebral cortex, alcohol begins to affect the hippocampus. The hippocampus lies beneath the cerebral cortex and works with the temporal lobe to control memory and emotion. When alcohol starts to take effect on the hippocampus, it results in memory loss and amplified emotions. Due to the fact that the hippocampus is responsible for long-term memory, heavy alcohol use can result in memory loss over time.

Third Stage

The next area to be affected by alcohol use is the cerebellum, which significantly impairs the person’s balance and coordination. The cerebellum works to control movement, balance, and complex motor skills. Drinking alcohol decreases these motor functions and slows the person’s reaction time. When a person can’t stand up or walk in a straight line, that means alcohol has taken effect on the cerebellum.

Fourth Stage

The final step of alcohol making its way through the brain is when it reaches the brain stem. Alcohol affects the medulla, which is the lower half of the brainstem. The medulla controls heartbeat, breathing, and other functions. This can be dangerous when a person drinks heavily over a long period of time as these functions can slow or stop working altogether. At this point, an individual’s life is in danger.

Long-Term Effects on the Brain

While the short-term effects of alcohol such as slurred speech, difficulty walking, and impaired memory can quickly dissolve after drinking stops, a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have long-term effects that persist even after sobriety. Moderate drinking could also lead to short or life-long impairment due to driving under the influence. A number of factors influence if an individual is at risk for long-term effects of alcohol, including:

  • How often and how much a person consumes alcohol
  • How long the person has been drinking
  • The person’s age, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism
  • Whether he or she was at risk of alcohol exposure in the womb
  • The person’s general health status

Recovery from Alcohol

Chronic alcohol use results in cognitive and physical impairment. Just as brain damage can lead to impairment, brain healing can lead to improved cognitive function. When the brain is given time to heal and be without alcohol, it can start to adapt to the damage and create new neurotransmitter pathways. If treatment begins on time, it is possible for much of the damage to be reversed. Achieving recovery allows the brain time to heal from the harmful effects of alcohol. It also provides the tools and skills you need to prevent relapse. If you or your loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, contact us for more information on the next step towards healing.

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