Chief Medical Officer at Gateway Foundation Dr. Roueen Rafeyan explains alcohol’s effects on the brain.
Alcohol’s effects on a person’s brain, in both the short- and long-term, are profound. As a solvent, alcohol passes to the brain very quickly and can cause damage to living cells.
The chemical and physical changes alcohol makes to the brain make it especially difficult to quit drinking alcohol, from a single drink or continued use of alcohol. These changes fall into two categories: acute and chronic.
Acute changes occur when a person is under the influence of alcohol, even a single drink. Three of the brain’s chemical processes, glutamate, GABA and dopamine, are affected.
- Glutamate serves an excitatory function and it keeps a person awake and alert. Since alcohol is a depressant, it reduces the effect of glutamate.
- GABA reduces brain energy and calms us down. Alcohol acts as a sedative and central nervous system depressant, enhancing the effects of the chemical GABA.
- Dopamine, the brain’s third chemical messenger, serves as the brain’s pleasure center. Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine, which is why it has a strong addictive nature.
With the continued use of alcohol, chronic changes can develop over time. Excessive drinking has been associated with brain atrophy. Alcohol withdrawal can be associated with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, also known as Wernicke’s disease. Its first signs are confusion, difficulty with gait and eye movements. If left untreated or if a person continues drinking alcohol, Wernicke’s can develop into Korsakoff’s syndrome, an irreversible disease in which people have memory loss and the lost memories are filled with confabulations, or fabricated experiences.
Struggle for Balance
Alcohol consumption results in imbalance between glutamate and GABA. Upon abrupt discontinuation of alcohol, the brain does not have enough GABA to slow down on its own. Increase glutamatergic activity results in shakes, increased blood pressure, increased pulse rate and potential for seizures. If left untreated, the condition can progress to delirium tremens, or DT.
Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly.
Conversely, the over stimulation of dopamine can lead to a slow-down in the brain’s production of dopamine. Unless a person achieves the desired effect by drinking more alcohol or another pleasure-inducing activity, they will experience dysphoria, a general emotional state marked by anxiety, depression and restlessness.
Reversing the Damage
There is some evidence that continued abstinence from alcohol may bring some improvement in brain function. The brain is pretty resilient and able to form new cells through neurogenesis. While it is unknown to what extent the effects of alcohol on the brain can be reversed, what is clear is that neurogenesis is stimulated by alcohol avoidance, exercise, good dietary habits and by using the brain.