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Alcohol Consumption and its Effects on the Brain

By: Dr. John Larson
Corporate Medical Director
Gateway Treatment Centers

People enjoy drinking alcohol for many reasons, but no matter what the reason, its effects on a person's brain, both short- and long-term, are profound. As a solvent, alcohol passes to the brain very quickly and can cause acute damage to living cells. Once a long-time drinker becomes sober, it may be years before those changes reverse themselves, if at all.

Expert Insight
Dr. John Larson explains alcohol's effects on the brain

The chemical and physical changes alcohol makes to the brain make it especially difficult to quit drinking alcohol, from a single drink or continued abuse of alcohol. These changes fall into two categories, acute and chronic.

Acute changes occur while 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, keeping a person awake and alert. Drinking alcohol 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's stimulation of this section of the brain is a strong component of its addictive nature.

With alcoholism, chronic changes, or neurological disease, develop over time. The first, Wernicke's encephalopathy, often called Wernicke's disease, interferes with coordination and memory. If left untreated or if a person continues drinking alcohol, Wernicke's can develop into Korsakoff's psychosis, an irreversible disease in which people can no longer form memories and have difficulty with walking and coordination.

Struggle for Balance

The brain prefers to be in a balanced state and so it attempts to counter the acute changes produced by alcohol. When glutamate is dampened, the brain produces more, causing shakes and agitation and in extreme cases, DT's and seizures.

Conversely, the overstimulation 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, the drinker 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 is able to form new cells through neurogenesis. We don't know to what extent the effects of alcohol on the brain can be reversed but what we do know, is that neurogenesis is stimulated by alcohol avoidance, exercise, good dietary habits and by simply using the brain.

To learn more about treatment options for alcoholism , or our confidential consultation, call Gateway Alcohol & Drug Treatment Centers today at 877-505-HOPE (4673).

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