November 24, 2023

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Brain?

A woman looks to the distance as she thinks about alcohol effects the brain

The consumption of alcohol disrupts the communication pathways within the brain, leading to changes in both the appearance and functionality of this vital organ. Specifically, alcohol hinders the ability of the brain regions responsible for maintaining balance, memory retention, speech, and sound judgment, increasing the risk of injuries and other adverse consequences. Prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption also brings about pronounced changes in the neurons, leading to reductions in their size and overall structure. Read on to learn more about the following issues:

  • How does alcohol affect your brain?
  • How long does alcohol affect your brain?
  • How does drinking affect your brain long-term?
  • Are the effects of alcohol on the brain reversible?

What Does Alcohol Do to Your Brain?

How does alcohol affect the human brain, then? Alcohol absorption impacts the entire body, but its most significant toll is on the brain, disrupting its communication pathways and affecting cognitive processing. Alcohol intoxication unfolds through several stages:

Subliminal intoxication

At BAC (blood alcohol concentration) levels of between 0.01 and 0.05, alcohol effects on brain may not be visibly apparent, but slight alterations in reaction time, behavior, and judgment can occur. Most individuals, based on weight, enter this stage after consuming a single drink.

Euphoria

In the early stages of drinking, the brain releases heightened levels of dopamine, linked to feelings of pleasure. During this phase, people may experience relaxation and confidence, but there may also be slight impairments in reasoning and memory. This stage is typically observed when the BAC ranges between 0.03 and 0.12.

Excitement

With a BAC ranging from 0.09 to 0.25, a person is considered legally intoxicated. This level of intoxication affects various parts of the brain, including the occipital, temporal, and frontal lobes, leading to symptoms such as blurred vision, slurred speech, hearing impairment, and impaired control. The parietal lobe, responsible for sensory processing, is also affected, resulting in a loss of fine motor skills and slower reaction times. Mood swings, impaired judgment, and nausea or vomiting are common markers of this stage.

Confusion

A BAC of 0.18 to 0.3 often leads to disorientation, impacting the cerebellum, which is responsible for coordination. This can result in difficulties with walking or standing, along with potential blackouts due to the hippocampus’s impaired functioning, affecting the formation of new memories. The heightened pain threshold increases the risk of injury.

Stupor

Reaching a BAC of 0.25 may indicate signs of alcohol poisoning, severely impairing mental, physical, and sensory functions. There is an increased risk of losing consciousness, suffocation, and injury.

Coma

With a BAC of 0.35, the risk of slipping into a coma escalates due to compromised respiration and circulation, as well as impaired motor responses and reflexes. This stage poses a high risk of fatality.

Death

A BAC exceeding 0.45 can result in death, either due to alcohol poisoning or the brain’s failure to control the body’s vital functions.

A man with his eyes closed and hands to his forehead, depicting the detrimental effects of alcohol on the brain

How Alcohol Affects Brain Function

How does alcohol affect your brain function is complex and multifaceted, affecting various cognitive processes and neural pathways. Here’s how alcohol affects the brain function:

  • Neurotransmitter disruption: Alcohol alters the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine and serotonin, which are crucial for regulating mood, behavior, and overall mental well-being. These changes can contribute to the development of mood disorders and other mental health issues.
  • Impaired cognitive abilities: Excessive alcohol consumption can impair cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and decision-making. Long-term alcohol use may lead to difficulties in learning and retaining new information, affecting both short-term and long-term memory.
  • Structural changes: Prolonged alcohol misuse can lead to structural changes in the brain, including a reduction in the overall size of certain brain regions. These alterations can impact various functions, including emotional regulation, impulse control, and the ability to process and retain information effectively.
  • Disrupted neural pathways: Alcohol interferes with the communication between different areas of the brain, disrupting neural pathways responsible for crucial functions such as coordination, speech, and sensory perception. This interference can lead to impaired motor skills, slurred speech, and altered sensory experiences.
  • Increased risk of neurological disorders: Chronic alcohol abuse is associated with an increased risk of developing neurological disorders, such as alcohol-related dementia, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (known as wet brain or alcohol on the brain) and other cognitive impairments. These conditions can significantly affect an individual’s cognitive abilities, memory, and overall quality of life.
  • Impact on neuroplasticity: Alcohol can hinder the brain’s ability to adapt and change, known as neuroplasticity, which is essential for learning and memory. Long-term alcohol misuse can diminish the brain’s capacity to reorganize and form new connections, leading to difficulties in cognitive flexibility and adaptation.

Understanding the intricate ways in which alcohol affects brain function underscores the importance of responsible drinking practices and the need for early intervention and support for individuals struggling with alcohol use disorders. Early recognition of the impact of alcohol on the brain can facilitate timely interventions aimed at mitigating potential long-term neurological consequences.

Is Alcohol’s Effects on The Brain Reversible?

For those wondering how does alcohol affect your brain long term, some of the neurological impacts of alcohol on the brain can be severe and long-lasting, research suggests that certain changes to the brain resulting from alcohol consumption may be reversible to some extent, particularly with early intervention and abstinence from alcohol. Some key points to consider regarding the reversibility of alcohol’s effects on the brain include:

Studies indicate that certain structural changes in the brain, such as a decrease in brain volume and shrinkage in specific regions, may partially reverse with sustained abstinence from alcohol. The brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize, known as neuroplasticity, can support the recovery of certain neural connections and the restoration of brain volume over time.

With sobriety and appropriate treatment interventions, some individuals may experience improvements in cognitive function, including memory, attention, and executive functioning. While the extent of recovery can vary depending on the severity and duration of alcohol abuse, cognitive rehabilitation programs and targeted therapies can help promote cognitive recovery and enhance overall brain function.

The disruption of neurotransmitter balance caused by alcohol consumption can also show signs of improvement with sustained abstinence. While the restoration of neurotransmitter balance may take time, the brain’s capacity to adapt and normalize chemical signaling pathways can contribute to the gradual improvement of mood regulation and cognitive processes.

The brain’s ability to generate new neurons and repair certain neuronal damage can be facilitated through a combination of abstinence, healthy lifestyle choices, and targeted interventions. Engaging in activities that promote brain health, such as regular exercise, a nutritious diet, and cognitive stimulation, can support the brain’s natural healing and regeneration processes.

While the brain has a remarkable capacity for recovery and adaptation, some alcohol-induced brain changes may be irreversible, particularly in cases of severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Early intervention, comprehensive treatment, and ongoing support are essential in mitigating the long-term neurological consequences of alcohol abuse and promoting the best possible outcomes for individuals on the path to recovery.

An image of the Gratitude Lodge facility, where alcohol addiction treatment is available

Get Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at Gratitude Lodge

Alcohol addiction is a chronic condition, but it responds favorably to evidence-based interventions. We can help you achieve and maintain sobriety at Gratitude Lodge. Our Orange County locations include Long Beach and Newport Beach.

If you are alcohol-dependent, you will benefit from supervised medical detoxification. Over one week, you can access medications approved by the FDA and continuous emotional and clinical care, reducing the intensity of the alcohol withdrawal process.

You can then tackle the psychological aspect of addiction through a combination of these therapies:

Call 888-861-1658 for assistance from detox to discharge and beyond.

Want to learn more?

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Joe Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
Jenni Bussi

Jenni Busse MS, LPCC

Jenni Busse MS, LPSS is the Clinical Director at Gratitude Lodge. Jenni oversees the clinical program and the clinical team at Gratitude Lodge as a whole. Jenni has worked in treatment for almost 14 years. Her background as a licensed therapist and her passion for helping others intersected with addiction recovery when she started working primarily in detox residential treatment.

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