What To Know About Alcohol And Brain Damage

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alcohol abuse and brain damage

From Medical News Today:

Alcohol has many effects on the body and can potentially damage the brain. Long-term and short-term effects can result in a range of physical and psychological changes. Learn more here.

Alcohol begins affecting a person’s brain as soon as it enters the bloodstream. In a healthy person, the liver quickly filters alcohol, helping the body get rid of the drug. However, when a person drinks to excess, the liver cannot filter the alcohol fast enough, and this triggers immediate changes in the brain.

Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can damage both the brain and liver, causing lasting damage.

Excessive alcohol consumption can have long-lasting effects on neurotransmitters in the brain, decreasing their effectiveness or even mimicking them. Alcohol also destroys brain cells and contracts brain tissue. Some people with a history of excessive alcohol use develop nutritional deficiencies that further damage brain function.

The precise symptoms of alcohol-related brain damage depend on a person’s overall health, how much they drink, and how well their liver functions, among other factors.

Short-term effects

As soon as alcohol enters the bloodstream, it changes how the brain functions. Moderate consumption of alcohol may cause the following temporary effects:

  • loss of inhibition
  • decreased planning and organizational skills
  • changes in mood and concentration
  • difficulty forming new memories
  • sleepiness
  • depressed mood
  • changes in energy levels
  • memory loss
  • poor judgment
  • reduced motor control, including delayed reflexes that can make driving dangerous

People with severe symptoms of intoxication or symptoms that last many hours are at risk of alcohol poisoning.

The ethanol in alcohol acts like a poison. When the liver is not able to filter this poison quickly enough, a person can develop signs of alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose. An overdose of alcohol affects the brain’s ability to sustain basic life functions.

Symptoms include:

  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • slow heart rate
  • difficulty staying awake
  • fainting
  • low body temperature
  • low gag reflex, which can increase the risk of choking if a person vomits
  • clammy skin

An untreated alcohol overdose can be fatal. Severe alcohol overdoses may cause permanent brain damage even if the person survives.

The higher a person’s blood alcohol concentration, the higher their risk of alcohol overdose. The heavy consumption of high-alcohol drinks is more likely to cause alcohol poisoning. People who have smaller bodies, drink alcohol less frequently, or have a history of liver disease are also more vulnerable to alcohol poisoning.


Long-term effects

Over time, alcohol abuse can cause permanent brain damage.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

One form of alcohol-related brain damage is Korsakoff syndrome. Korsakoff syndrome often appears after an episode of Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is acute alcohol-related brain dysfunction.

The two conditions, together called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, happen in people who are severely deficient in thiamine (vitamin B-1). Alcohol abuse makes it more difficult for the body to absorb this nutrient, but other issues, such as severe eating disorders, cancer, AIDS, and conditions that affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, may also cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Some symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:

  • confusion and disorientation that continue well beyond the period of drunkenness
  • malnourishment that may cause significant weight loss
  • trouble moving the eyes or strange and jerky eye movements
  • poor balance

Following Wernicke’s encephalopathy, the person may develop signs of Korsakoff syndrome. This disorder is a type of dementia.

Symptoms include:

  • memory problems, in particular, difficulties forming new memories
  • poor judgment
  • decreased planning and organizational skills
  • mood and personality changes
  • hallucinations
  • progressively worsening cognitive decline that may affect every area of functioning, including speech, vision, and bowel and bladder function

Vitamin supplements and complete abstinence from alcohol may reverse symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome within the first 2 years after stopping drinking.


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Founded in 2012 by Dr. John F. Kelly, the Recovery Research Institute is a team of highly innovative and rigorously trained scientists working through research, education, and outreach, to enhance recovery through science. As an entity of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, the institute is known as a leader in the scientific investigation of substance use disorder mechanisms and processes.
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