How Alcohol Abuse Affects the Brain

When a person drinks alcohol, they’ll quickly notice some mental changes. For example, they may feel more relaxed and have trouble thinking clearly. However, alcohol doesn’t just have short-term effects. For people who deal with alcohol addiction, long-term brain changes can impact life, work, and family. 

Alcohol and the Brain’s Chemical Messengers  

The brain relies on chemicals called neurotransmitters to send messages. For instance, exercise releases a chemical called dopamine, and dopamine makes the brain feel happy and accomplished. As a result of these feelings, the brain will prompt the person to exercise again. 

Alcohol interacts with these chemicals. Some of the most important alcohol neurotransmitter interactions include: 

  • dopamine (happiness, pleasure, and feelings of accomplishment) 
  • serotonin (happiness, calmness, and feelings of wellbeing) 
  • GABA (calmness and relaxation) 
  • glutamate (alertness, learning, and memory) 

These chemical interactions can cause alcohol dependence. 

Alcohol and Dopamine 

Alcohol increases the brain’s dopamine production, often making people feel especially happy when they drink. When a person drinks alcohol regularly, their brain will begin to expect the extra dopamine. To maintain a balance, the brain may remove some of its own dopamine receptors, so the extra dopamine won’t work as strongly. 

Once that happens, a person will need to drink even more alcohol to experience the same happiness-boosting effect. Worse, normal amounts of dopamine will no longer feel like enough, so the person may feel depressed and lethargic when they’re not drinking. 

Alcohol and Glutamate 

While alcohol increases dopamine, it decreases certain other neurotransmitters, like glutamate. With the right amount of glutamate, a person will feel awake and alert. Alcohol’s suppression of glutamate is one reason why people often feel relaxed and sleepy when they drink. 

Again, however, the brain eventually adapts to the change, expecting lower amounts of glutamate. When the person stops drinking, the glutamate will return, and that return will catch the brain off-guard. The brain may even produce too much glutamate, which may make the person feel restless, anxious, and unable to sleep. 

Alcohol and Brain Structure 

Over time, alcohol can also change the structure of the brain. Studies have linked long-term alcohol use to brain shrinkage. This loss of volume impacts both gray matter, which processes information, and white matter, which delivers that information from one part of the brain to another. This brain damage impacts people’s lives in several ways, including: 

  • long-term memory issues 
  • learning difficulties 
  • difficulty making decisions 
  • difficulty concentrating 
  • mood changes 
  • increased risk of dementia 

Alcohol has an especially large impact on the frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain responsible for making decisions, communicating, planning, and other higher-level functions. Because this part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25, alcohol abuse can be especially detrimental to teens and young adults. 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome 

Some people with alcohol use disorder may develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a type of brain damage that affects memory. This disorder can develop in a person whose body doesn’t have enough thiamine (vitamin B1), which is a common deficiency in people who are addicted to alcohol. 

The early stage of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is called Wernicke encephalopathy. Its symptoms include:

  • tremors 
  • loss of coordination 
  • confusion 
  • drooping eyelids 
  • double vision 
  • unusual eye movements 

The latter state is called Korsakoff syndrome, and its symptoms include: 

  • memory loss 
  • inability to form new memories 
  • hallucinations 

What to Do if You Have an Alcohol Addiction 

Although some alcohol-related brain changes may be permanent, many of these changes can be stopped or even reversed. Even if you suspect that you have brain damage due to addiction, you can still get help and notice positive effects as you recover. 

If you think you might have an alcohol addiction, ask your doctor for treatment recommendations. If you don’t have a doctor, search for nearby rehabs and treatment centers. The sooner you begin treatment, the sooner your brain can begin to heal. 

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