5 Harmful Ways Alcohol Abuse Impacts The Brain

Most people understand the adverse effects of alcohol; after all, at one point or another, we’ve experienced it. Hangovers the mornings after are apparent signs that whatever it does to the brain isn’t good. Alcohol abuse scars the liver, hurts the heart, and negatively affects the brain. Within 5 to 10 minutes of reaching your brain, it interferes with memory, judgment, vision, coordination, and balance.

However, the effects of longer-term alcohol abuse on the brain have far more severe consequences. Alcohol is a neurotoxin that interacts directly with nerve cells and can change the brain’s shape, size, structure, and function. Its repeated abuse takes an immense toll that causes permanent problems with tasks as simple as thinking clearly or moving. In this article, we’ll outline five significant life-altering effects of alcohol abuse, some of which happen at the molecular level, slowly yet steadily, with life-ruining costs.

1. Wernicke Encephalopathy or Wet Brain from Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse can lead to Wernicke encephalopathy (WE), commonly known as wet brain. WE is characterized by a trio of symptoms: loss of muscle control that can cause tremors, confusion, and paralysis or weakness in the eye muscles. It results from alcohol’s ability to repress thiamine, a helper molecule needed to break down carbs in your body. Carbohydrate metabolism generates the energy to create cells and proteins, but the brain relies on it most of all, as both neurons and their supporting cells require it.  

While called wet brain, alcohol abuse and its suppression of thiamine are more akin to brain drying. It reduces your brain’s ability to produce the cells it needs to think, act, see, and rejuvenate. Patients with WE struggle with simple tasks like walking out of a room, as their legs might shake uncontrollably, and they would be unable to steady them.

If the condition isn’t treated quickly with aggressive thiamine replacement and proper nutrition, it will become more dangerous, just as HIV can turn into to AIDS. WE is only the first standalone part of a condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Untreated WE will cause damage to the thalamus and hypothalamus, which are responsible for many things, including emotions and memories. These profoundly troublesome neurological effects progress WE into Korsakoff syndrome.

2. Korsakoff Syndrome from Alcohol Abuse

Around 80 to 90 percent of alcoholics with Wernicke encephalopathy will not improve. They will develop the second part of the condition, known as Korsakoff’s psychosis. The neurological damage caused by alcohol abuse can progress to such an extent that the condition is called amnesic syndrome. Memory formation has been so compromised that alcoholics who suffer from the condition can develop both retrograde and anterograde amensia, meaning they forget memories and can’t form new ones.

Not only will they struggle to recall information about their life, but their short-term memory is provably impaired even when engaged in direct conversation. Within an hour, they can forget the exchange ever happened.

Alcohol abuse-induced amnesia is only one of the personality changes associated with the condition. There is also confabulation (entirely invented memories), apathy toward tasks, and the inability to say anything meaningful in conversation. Korsakoff syndrome is complicated to reverse. Even when brought under control, the damage to the brain will endure.

Cerebral degeneration is more common than Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, and develops from thiamine deficiencies after ten or more years of drinking. A shrinking exemplifies it in regions of the cerebellum. This area, responsible for muscle coordination and cognitive functioning, decays significantly when under alcoholism. Those who suffer from this will have problems coordinating their body to do what they want or have involuntary movements.

3. Global Cerebral Atrophy Caused by Alcohol Abuse

Even without the extreme conditions listed above, alcoholics have consistently shown damage in the prefrontal cortex, which can lead to critical deficiencies. The prefrontal cortex regulates higher cognitive abilities, such as personality, decision-making, abstract thinking, planning, and social behavior. We usually associate being drunk with the loss of inhibition, which makes a person euphoric, but it can also lead to maladaptive social behavior, sexually risky behavior, and aggressiveness.

Alcohol abuse impacts the prefrontal cortex to such an extent that these behaviors persist even while sober. This loss in executive cognitive function is related to disinhibition syndromes. Over time alcohol abuse atrophies the brain’s decision-making centers enough that the ability to distinguish between socially appropriate and socially inappropriate behavior goes with it. Alcoholics have difficulty telling apart stimuli in the following categories:

  1. Relevant and irrelevant
  2. Easy and difficult
  3. Familiar and unfamiliar

This degeneration lies behind the more problematic behaviors and difficult-to-manage emotional states of alcoholics. Drunk overconfidence, drunk aggression, drunk inappropriateness, and a host of other harmful behaviors are results of alcohol abuse physically changing your brain without your knowledge.

4. Alcohol Abuse Kills Neurons

We all need neurons. They transmit information the body needs to function and create networks that form our memories, skills, and just about everything we do. If you are an expert at flipping eggs on a pan, it is because a neural network has formed around your ability to do that. Alcohol abuse kills neurons and simultaneously fights their creation.

Metabolized alcohol in the body forms free radicals. Due to their chemical composition, free radicals are highly reactive and can seriously harm cells if not dealt with by antioxidants. Too many radicals in the body cause cell death by oxidizing the brain, which already uses a lot of oxygen to function. On top of that, alcohol hurts the process of neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, and how the brain rejuvenates itself.

With fewer neurons comes less ability to learn new things. You become worse at what you already know and stop experiencing new activities with the fullness and appreciation intended. This shrinkage is why alcoholics show a cognitive decline in nearly every ability; the addiction slowly makes the brain into a shadow of what it could be.

5. Alcohol Abuse Causes Mental Illness

Dopamine and serotonin are the two most famous neurotransmitters. Dopamine is the “happy hormone,” an evolutionarily beneficial adaptation that rewards us with pleasure whenever we do something the body craves, such as exercise or eat. Serotonin serves many functions, among them mood regulation and sleep. Alcohol abuse floods the receptors that intake dopamine and serotonin with an excess of them, dulling them to the body’s natural ways of happiness production. When your body can no longer derive joy from life’s authentic and meaningful pleasures, mental illness is not far behind.

Alcohol abuse has high co-occurring rates of anxiety and depression, and the reason appears to be neurological. Like this and in a thousand other ways, alcohol dependence changes you in insidious ways that, over the months and years, add up to make you an entirely new, incomplete person. Much of it happens at the cellular level without your awareness or consent.

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GateHouse Treatment Editorial Staff
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