How Alcohol Damages the Brain

Alcohol abuse is one of the most widespread substance use disorders worldwide. Many of us have either seen or experienced firsthand the harmful effects of alcohol use. However, we may not realize all the ways alcohol can damage the body over time. While we might understand how alcohol can affect liver and kidney function, another part of the body can suffer: the brain. Here’s how alcohol can damage the brain and what to do about it.

Brain Disease

One of the most foundational parts of understanding how alcohol relates to brain damage is the fact that modern medicine describes addiction as a chronic brain disease. This is true for any substance use disorder, including alcohol. When the body becomes addicted to alcohol, it affects the reward system in the brain. This can directly impact anything from memory, learning ability, motivation, and mood stability.

Alcoholism, in particular, is viewed as a chronic relapsing brain disease. This disease includes an inability to control alcohol intake, compulsive alcohol usage, and a negative impact on one’s emotional state when they are not using alcohol. Further, addiction can affect the way the brain communicates with the rest of the body. Because the substance impacts the brain negatively, we start to think and teach ourselves that alcohol is a vital resource.

One way alcohol affects the brain is when people drink more than their livers can filter out at one time. When this happens, alcohol mimics gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), a brain chemical that blocks stress and anxiety signals. The brain begins to associate alcohol with these stress-relieving effects, and this is one reason alcohol can quickly become an addictive substance. It also explains why one in every 12 adults in the United States is addicted to alcohol.

Various Forms of Brain Damage

One of the most significant varieties of alcohol-related brain damage is called wet brain. Formally called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, this occurs when people drink heavily over time. The result of this kind of chronic alcohol use is a deficiency of Vitamin B1. The brain will form lesions, which typically worsen over weeks. Among the various neurological symptoms people experience with wet brain are impaired muscle coordination, memory loss, and impaired mental functioning.

 To help diagnose wet brain, the primary symptom to look for is ongoing confusion. When ongoing confusion is coupled with a history of alcoholism, it is important to get a professional diagnosis from a doctor as soon as possible since brain lesions and the ongoing deficiency of Vitamin B1 will take a greater toll on the body over time.

Besides wet brain, alcohol-induced psychosis is another dangerous way alcohol can harm the brain. Psychosis can be experienced as hallucinations or a generally delusional state of mind. People with psychosis can respond emotionally with intense confusion, fear, and even aggression.

Bad hygiene and a poor diet will regularly accompany those who experience psychosis, as their ongoing state of confusion prevents them from being able to carry out their regular activities. Those who have mental health issues before developing an alcohol use disorder can experience more severe forms of psychosis, and psychosis can be a symptom of wet brain.

The third kind of brain damage related to alcohol is brain shrinkage. Studies have shown that ongoing alcohol use can lead to a reduction in the volume of white matter in the brain. This can affect the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions, but it is especially related to long-term memory. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Society states that long-term alcohol use can increase one’s risk of developing dementia later in life.

Is Alcohol Damage Reversible?

With these concerns in mind, one of the most important questions to ask related to alcohol and brain damage is this: is it reversible? Simply put, it depends. However, like any substance use disorder, the sooner people find treatment and begin recovery, the higher chance they have to reverse the brain damage or at least stop the damage from getting worse.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from alcohol use disorder, time is of the essence. Not only will finding professional treatment help prevent matters from getting worse, but it also gives people a chance to reverse some of the damage that has been done. 


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