Almost all adults have experienced the effect alcohol has on the body – from slurred speech to a stumbling walk to memory lapses. Many people who drink experience poor coordination, balance and judgment. Drinking slows down the body’s reaction time because it alters the level of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals in the body and control thought processes, behavior and emotions. These chemicals may have a stimulating effect or an inhibitory effect, which decreases brain electrical activity. Alcohol increases the effects of neurotransmitter GABA, which has an inhibitory effect on the mind. GABA is what causes loss of coordination and slurred speech. Simultaneously, alcohol inhibits the stimulatory effects of the neurotransmitter glutamate triggering a physiological slowdown. Finally, alcohol also increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, which gives the feeling of pleasure. Below is a list of the ways alcohol affects the different regions in the brain.
The cerebral cortex is responsible for thought processing and consciousness. When individuals drink alcohol, this region is depressed making the person less inhibited in their behavior. It also slows down the processing of information from various senses and decreases thought processing, making it difficult to think clearly.
The cerebellum is responsible for movement and balance. Alcohol decreases function in this area, which causes individuals to lose balance after drinking.
Hypothalamus and Pituitary
The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland control automatic brain functions and the release of hormones. Alcohol decreases these nerve centers, which decreasing sexual performance, although sexual urges may be increased.
The medulla is responsible for automatic bodily functions including breathing, consciousness and body temperature. By decreasing function in the medulla, people who consume alcohol become sleepy. Large consumption of alcohol may also slow breathing and lower body temperature, which can be potentially life threatening.
In the short term, alcohol often causes blackouts. This is when people have memory lapses over stretches of time. After a few drinks, memory becomes somewhat impaired. Drinking on an empty stomach or consuming many drinks in a short period of time may truly hinder a person’s memory. Blackouts are common in social drinkers. Many individuals report having participated in dangerous events they could not remember such as driving under the influence, vandalism and unprotected sex. Individuals who experience blackouts often drink too much too quickly. For men, binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in two hours while for women it’s four or more drinks. While men tend to consume more alcohol more frequently, women metabolize alcohol differently and are more susceptible to blackouts. However, both sexes report the same percentage of blackouts.
Long-term effects of alcohol on the brain are far more damaging. Individuals who drink large amounts of alcohol regularly may develop serious changes in their brain. For instance, one common occurrence in alcoholics is a thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is essential for all tissue in the body including the brain. Additionally, about 80 percent of alcoholics develop serious brain disorders such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). WKS is an illness that leads to mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves in the eye and poor muscle coordination. The effects of WKS may be short-lived or permanent. Women are also more vulnerable to the consequences of long-term alcohol consumption. For example, alcoholic women have a high tendency to develop cirrhosis, damage of the heart muscle and nerve damage. Heavy and frequent consumption of alcohol may also lead to an overall shrinkage of the brain causing permanent damage.
Alcohol has many detrimental effects to the brain, and frequent and large consumption of alcohol may cause permanent, irreversible damage. If you or a loved one are suffering from alcohol addiction, it’s best to seek professional help since it may be difficult to overcome this addiction without help.