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Alcohol And Alcoholism And The Affect on The Brain

how alcohol affects the brain

Alcohol has a profound affect on the brain

What is Alcohol

An alcoholic drink, or alcoholic beverage, is a drink that contains a substantial amount of ethanol (informally called alcohol), a depressant which in low doses causes euphoria, reduced anxiety, and sociability and in higher doses causes intoxication, stupor and unconsciousness. Long-term misuse can lead to alcohol abuse, physical dependence, and alcoholism.

Alcohol is one of the most widely used recreational drugs in the world. For instance, in 2015, in the  USA, 89% of adults had consumed alcohol at some point, 70% had drunk it in the last year, and 56% in the last month. Alcoholic drinks are typically divided into three classes—beers, wines, and spirits—and typically contain between 3% and 40% alcohol by volume.

Alcohol’s Affect On The Brain

Drinking can cause difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction, and impaired memory. Some of these cognitive impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops. On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have brain/cognitive issues that persist after he or she achieves sobriety. How alcohol affects the brain and the likelihood of reversing the impact of heavy drinking on the brain is a popular area of research today.

We do know that heavy drinking may have extensive and far–reaching effects on the brain, ranging from simple “slips” in memory to permanent and debilitating conditions that require lifetime custodial care. And even moderate drinking can lead to short–term impairment, as shown by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving.

A number of factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain including:

  • how much and how often a person drinks
  • the age at which he or she first began drinking, and how long he or she has been drinking
  • the person’s age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism
  • whether he or she is at risk as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure
  • his or her general health status.

How Alcohol Affects Your Brain and Body video

Blackouts and Memory Issues

Drinking can produce detectable impairments in memory after only a few drinks and, as the amount of alcohol increases, so does the degree of impairment. Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce a blackout, or a lapse in memory where the individual has a difficult time recalling recent events.

Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers than previously assumed and should be viewed as a potential consequence of acute intoxication regardless of age or whether the drinker is clinically dependent on alcohol. White and colleagues surveyed 772 college undergraduates about their experiences with blackouts and asked, “Have you ever awoken after a night of drinking not able to remember things that you did or places that you went?” Of the students who had ever consumed alcohol, 51 percent reported blacking out at some point in their lives, and 40 percent reported experiencing a blackout in the year before the survey. Of those who reported drinking in the 2 weeks before the survey, 9.4 percent said they blacked out during that time. The students reported learning later that they had participated in a wide range of potentially dangerous events they could not remember, including vandalism, unprotected sex, and driving.

Equal numbers of men and women reported experiencing blackouts, despite the fact that the men drank significantly more often and more heavily than the women. This outcome suggests that regardless of the amount of alcohol consumption, females—a group infrequently studied in the literature on blackouts—are at greater risk than males for experiencing blackouts. A woman’s tendency to black out more easily probably results from differences in how men and women metabolize alcohol. Females also may be more susceptible than males to milder forms of alcohol–induced memory impairments, even when men and women consume comparable amounts of alcohol.

Woman Are More Vulnerable to Alcohol’s Effects On The Brain

Women are more vulnerable than men to many of the medical consequences of alcohol abuse. For example, alcoholic women develop cirrhosis, alcohol–induced damage of the heart muscle, and nerve damage after fewer years of heavy drinking than do men with similar drinking patterns. Using imaging with computerized tomography, two studies compared brain shrinkage, a common indicator of brain damage, in alcoholic men and women and reported that male and female alcoholics both showed significantly greater brain shrinkage than control subjects. Studies also showed that both men and women have similar learning and memory problems as a result of heavy drinking . The difference is that alcoholic women reported that they had been drinking excessively for only about half as long as the alcoholic men in these studies. This indicates that women’s brains, like their other organs, are more vulnerable to alcohol–induced damage than men’s.

Yet other studies have not shown such definitive findings. In fact, two reports appearing side by side in the American Journal of Psychiatry contradicted each other on the question of gender–related vulnerability to brain shrinkage in alcoholism. Clearly, more research is needed on this topic, especially because alcoholic women have received less research attention than alcoholic men despite good evidence that women may be particularly vulnerable to alcohol’s effects on many key organ systems.

Alcohol Summary

Alcohol is a potent drug and misuse can result in extensive cognitive and brain issues.  Moderation is the key for drinkers who consume socially and not problematically.  Those with drinking problems are advised to explore support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and seek professional guidance.  Detox might be warranted in some cases as well as formal treatment.  Our Hotline is here 24/7 to provide guidance. 1-888-702-6908