In many cases when alcohol is involved in a person’s life you can see the effects on the brain. Slurred speech, a stagger, explosive behavior, or trouble remembering specific moments can all be issues—even after a few drinks or only one night of drinking. Fortunately, many of these effects dissipate after a person stops drinking; however, when alcohol is used chronically it causes negative impacts on the brain. This occurs to the extent that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) tells us that of the roughly 20 million individuals with an alcohol addiction across the United States, half experience neurophysiological impairments ranging from mild to severe. These changes may be so severe, in fact, that NIAAA writes that “up to 2 million alcoholics develop permanent and debilitating conditions that require lifetime custodial care.”
Research shows us that alcohol can damage the frontal white matter tracts of the brain. When these are affected, as explained by a EurekAlert! publication, it can disrupt cognitive and inhibitory control, two things that are necessary for preserving abstinence from alcohol. This presents a dire situation—as a person keeps drinking in a compulsive manner, they continue to do damage to their brain; however, it is to some extent this very damage that may contribute to them drinking. Beyond this, alcohol abuse has the potential to harm the brain in numerous other ways.
Research Shows That Compulsive Drinking Changes Your Brain’s Functions
A 2014 study, the subject of the EurekAlert article, used a high-resolution structural magnetic resonance (MR) scan to see the brain’s regions and the impact of chronic alcohol usage. To do this, scientists studied 31 individuals who had suffered an average of 25 years from an alcohol addiction but who now held roughly five years of sobriety and also 20 “nonalcoholic control participants.” Based on study findings, researchers determined that individuals who suffered from an alcohol addiction has decreased white matter pathways stretched over the whole brain. These findings are impactful because they spoke to the lingering brain damage that was present in individuals who no longer drank.
The EurekAlert report offers insightful comments from the study’s lead author, neuropsychologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Catherine Brawn Fortier. Fortier acknowledges that researchers have long known that alcohol affects the brain; however, it wasn’t until the advent of newer technologies that allowed us to fully understand the implications beyond what we could understand based on post-mortem findings or behavioral observations. She comments on this, saying “We now can use neuroimaging techniques to see, in vivo, that alcohol has wide ranging effects across the entire brain that contribute to a wide range of changes in psychological abilities and intellectual functions.”
According to Fortier, the brain has two kinds of tissues: gray matter or cortex tissue, containing countless neurons responsible for your brain’s inner workings and white matter, an area that links masses of these important cells. In regards to these tissues, she asserts that alcohol affects both these regions and also areas called the frontal lobes—it is the latter region that is affected most heavily. Noting the importance of these regions, she explains “These brain areas are critical to learning new information and, even more importantly, in self-regulation, impulse control, and the modification of all complicated human behaviors. In other words, the very parts of the brain that may be most important for controlling problem drinking are damaged by alcohol, and the more alcohol consumed, the greater the damage.”
Within the brain, pathways are created by frontal white matter tracts linking the frontal lobes to other outlying areas. As elaborated by Fortier, “The frontal cortex is the integration center for all other parts of the brain that are important to behavior and cognitive function.” According to Fortier, these pathways help with planning, self-monitoring, reasoning, and judgement—all elements we might add, that help a person in making sound decisions regarding alcohol consumption and the resulting harm to their body and brain. She continues to tell us that these areas also help with learning and memory building and aid in bringing change and growth through new patterns in our behavior. The frontal pathways aid with regulating impulsive behavior, an important mechanism to help obtain and keep abstinence.
Fortier and her partners drew two important conclusions. First, they determined that the recovered individuals had decreased white matter pathways all over the entire brain when set against the healthy light drinkers. Essentially, this means that the pathways responsible for relaying important information across the brain are greatly affected by alcohol addiction.
Secondly, the dosage of alcohol seems to impact the brain as well. According to Fortier, alcohol is like a sunburn. The more exposed you are to it and the greater the quantity you indulge in, the more heightened the damage. When it comes to recovery, this damage to key parts of the brain responsible for self-control and judgement (like the frontal gyrus) can make it difficult—because these are some of the very things that are needed to overcome an alcohol addiction.
The study reports that chronic drinking can actually alter your brain’s reward system, asserting that “Disruption of this network in chronic alcoholism may represent failure of a ‘neural brake’ mechanism. In the case of alcoholism, higher order cognitive functions critical for behavioral control may be over-ridden or hijacked by the deregulated structures within the reward system.”
Abstinence or drinking lightly leads to better overall health and a healthier brain when compared to heavy drinking. The more drawn out your alcohol abuse or addiction is, the greater the risk is for permanent damage to the brain. The report details that when dealing with alcohol addiction, the resulting brain changes and dysfunction may interfere with someone’s ability to heal and function properly. In fact, study findings suggest that after age 50, excessive heavy alcohol consumption may induce permanent alterations of the brain’s functioning.
Other Forms of Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Beyond what we’ve mentioned, chronic alcohol consumption may cause other serious types of damage, including:
Blackouts And Memory Problems—A few drinks can still impact memory and as the alcohol is upped in quantity and frequency, so does the severity of impairment. When consumed at a rapid pace, excessive amounts of alcohol can create a blackout—this happens more readily on an empty stomach and in instances of binge drinking. When this occurs, a person will not be able to remember certain details or even entire incidents. Though blackouts are often indicative of an alcohol addiction, researchers are finding that they are becoming common amongst social drinkers and should be looked at even if the drinker isn’t dependent. Though this brain impairment may occur in the short term, if left to occur again, in multiple instances, the risk of more long-term risks, including addiction and brain damage arise. People also engage in harmful behaviors during this time, including vandalism, drinking and driving, and unprotected sexual activity.
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)—Alcohol abuse and addiction do not affect only the person consuming the alcohol; during pregnancy, a woman’s baby may also be impacted in a manner that results in brain damage. These children may end up with a reduced number of overall neurons or a smaller number of neurons that are able to properly fulfill their purpose. Because of this, these children may have long-term behavioral concerns or difficulties learning.
Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome—Caused by a thiamine deficiency (a type of B vitamin deficiency) resulting from prolonged drinking, this disease is actually a combination of two disorders—Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Though the former is the shorter of the two, it still remains serious as it can cause cognitive impairment, paralysis of the nerves that enable eye movement, and an impaired ability to move or control your muscles. Of the individuals with this condition, NIAAA tells us that 80 percent to 90 percent will progress to Korsakoff’s psychosis, “a chronic and debilitating syndrome characterized by persistent learning and memory problems.” It is this latter condition that may cause the situation we spoke about in the introduction—25 percent of individuals may need custodial care due to permanent brain damage incurred from this disease.
Hepatic encephalopathy—Though many people may realize that chronic drinking can cause severe liver issues, many unfortunately do not realize that these very liver issues in the long run, specifically liver cirrhosis, may actually affect the brain in dangerous ways. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that hepatic encephalopathy may cause “sleep patterns, mood, and personality; psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression; severe cognitive effects such as shortened attention span; and problems with coordination such as a flapping or shaking of the hands (called asterixis).” In the most severe of cases, this condition may lead to a coma or even a fatality.
A growing body of research suggests that long-term, chronic alcohol consumption may actually lead to dementia.
Why Does Alcohol-Related Brain Damage Occur?
When alcohol-related brain damage is being considered, it is important to realize that it may stem from various factors. According to NIAAA, these include:
- How much alcohol is consumed daily
- The age of when you or a loved one began to drink
- How long an individual has been drinking for
- A person’s age
- An individual’s level of education
- A person’s gender
- A person’s genetic makeup and family history of alcohol addiction
- General state of physical and mental health
In regards to the latter factor, NIAAA stresses that “comorbid medical, neurological, and psychiatric conditions can interact to aggravate alcoholism’s effects on the brain and behavior.” These include, as extracted from the NIAAA publication:
- Medical conditions such as malnutrition and diseases of the liver and the cardiovascular system
- Neurological conditions such as head injury, inflammation of the brain (i.e., encephalopathy), and fetal alcohol syndrome (or fetal alcohol effects)
- Psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, post–traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and the use of other drugs (Petrakis et al. 2002).
It is important to consider that these conditions, especially dual diagnosis mental health concerns, may push a person towards drinking even more. Beyond this, many of these conditions may also be caused by chronic alcohol consumption, such as diseases of the liver, depression, or a head injury sustained while under the influence. It is evident then that drinking may create a vicious cycle, and in order to truly protect themselves from further risk, a person should strive towards sobriety. The sooner you reach out for help and stop drinking, the sooner you can help your body and brain have the best chance of health and wellness.
Don’t Be Afraid To Reach Out
If you have suffered blackouts, memory lapses, or are struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, reach out today for help. For more information, contact us at AlcoholTreatment.net. Get the help you need before your brain suffers any more. We are here to support you and offer you treatment options and resources to help you find sobriety.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism—ALCOHOL’S DAMAGING EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism—Alcoholism and the Brain: An Overview
EurekAlert!—Chronic alcohol intake can damage white matter pathways across the entire brain
U.S. National Library of Medicine—Widespread effects of alcohol on white matter microstructure