How Alcohol Affects The Brain

Alcohol can make you laugh or it can make you cry, it can make you lively or make you sleepy, it can boost your confidence or make you act the fool.  How can alcohol have all these different effects on people?

You have probably observed that alcohol seems to have different effects on different people.  Some people quickly become sleepy after drinking just a little alcohol whereas others become animated and want to just go, go, go.

Research on mice suggests that this difference is genetic.  Scientists have been able to breed strains of mice which quickly go to sleep after ingesting alcohol.  They have also been able to breed strains of mice which become very active after ingesting alcohol.  This strongly suggests that genetics determines which neurotransmitter system is most strongly affected by alcohol in which individual.

No discussion of alcohol and the brain would be complete without a mention of possible brain damage caused by alcohol abuse.  It is likely that we have all heard that drinking kills brain cells.  However, does scientific evidence bear out this common folk saying? A 1993 study by Jensen and Pakkenberg published in Lancet titled “Do alcoholics drink their neurons away?” compared the brains of alcoholics to the brains of non-alcoholics.  This study found that the white matter of the brains of alcoholics was significantly depleted.

The gray matter, however, was the same in both alcoholics and non-alcoholics.  This is interesting since it is the gray matter that does the thinking.  The gray matter has been compared to a network of computers, and the white matter to the cables linking them together.  The brain does not produce new gray matter to replace that which is lost.  The brain can, however, produce new white matter to replace white matter which has been lost.  The researchers concluded that loss of white matter due to heavy drinking may possibly not constitute irreparable damage.

There is, however, a form of irreparable brain damage which can be caused by long term heavy drinking.  This is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, also known as “wet brain”. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndromeis not caused by a loss of brain cells–it is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine). Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can have several causes including extreme malnutrition, prolonged periods of vomiting due to morning sickness or an eating disorder, kidney dialysis, stomach stapling, or alcohol abuse.  The vast majority of cases of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome which occur in the United States are caused by severe, long-term, heavy drinking.

Alcohol can lead to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome because it blocks the absorption of thiamine.  Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome include amnesia, inability to form new memories, confusion, hallucinations, and confabulation.  Some of the more severe symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can be treated with thiamine, however in most cases many of the symptoms persist for a lifetime.

If you or someone you know suffers from alcoholism, you need to get personal or professional help. Do not delay, alcoholism is a serious disease.