Drinking alcohol became a socially acceptable activity in many societies beginning in the Neolithic period. From the earliest traces of brewing occurred around 10,000 years ago before, to former trade negotiations and family celebrations – the use of alcohol intertwined with people’s daily lives.
Here’s how alcohol affects the brain
IN USA, data from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that over 85 percent of adults aged 18 and over have admitted to drinking alcohol at some point in their lives, with more than 25 percent having engaged in binge drinking. And although light to moderate drinking can bring some health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes reducing stresslong-term binge drinking can wreak havoc on the brain.
But when does the line between a few drinks now and then and heavy drinking start to blur? How much is too much for alcohol to start affecting the brain?
How alcohol affects the brain and behavior
Having a pint of alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean you’re drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a person is engaged in binge drinking if they consume alcohol to the point where their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08 g/dL or higher. This would be equivalent to five or more drinks for men and four or more for women within two hours of the same occasion.
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And when one drinks, the alcohol reaches important areas of the brain — cerebral cortex, frontal lobe, hippocampus, hypothalamus, cerebellum — which disrupts a person’s balance, judgment, speech and memory and forces the brain to work harder. Over time, the increase in BAC levels may be enough to create long-term effects on the brain.
Whether in the short or long term, how alcohol affects the brain It depends on many factors. The amount of alcohol someone drinks, how often they drink, at what age they started drinking, family history, gender, genetics, and health status are some of the most common factors.
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Short-term effects of alcohol on the brain
In the short term, there are many forms of how alcohol affects the brain. Alcohol distorts a person’s senses. You tend to become more confident at first because alcohol acts as a depressant on the cerebral cortex (which controls inhibition) and it reaches dysfunctional receptors in the brain, triggering the release of dopamine – the chemical responsible for pleasure.
Depending on the amount of alcohol you consume, you may experience slurred speech, stammering, blurred vision, confusion, and memory problems. In extreme cases, you can put yourself in danger.
Flushing caused by alcohol
Alcohol-induced blackout is another way alcohol affects the brain. If a person can’t remember details of a conversation they had with you during a night of drinking, or can barely remember things they did or said, there’s a good chance they passed out.
Aaron M. White, assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, defines eclipse as “periods of memory loss for events that occurred while a person was drinking.”
Alcohol-induced disruption of consciousness occurs when alcohol prevents the consolidation of memories in the hippocampus and the individual’s drinking pattern disrupts the transfer of short-term memory to long-term memory. This process usually occurs at a BAC of 0.16 percent or higher and depends on other factors, such as how fast a person can drink or whether they are drinking on an empty stomach.
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Long-term effects of alcohol on the brain
There is no shortage of literature revealing the long-term effects of alcohol on the brain. Studies show that severe, long-term alcohol consumption can cause mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, and can lead to alcohol use disorder. But that’s not all. Scientists are taking a proactive approach to understanding alcohol’s role in brain shrinkage and other severe brain disorders.
Shrinking the brain
Because alcohol interferes with communication pathways, compromising brain function, researchers have found that long-term heavy drinking leads to changes in neurons (including their size), causing “brain shrinkage.”
After monitoring alcohol consumption and brain health in a group of about 427 participants in a a longitudinal cohort study over 30 years, researchers at the University of Oxford concluded that brain shrinkage is directly related to the amount of alcohol someone has consumed. Essentially, while participants who consumed four or more drinks per day had a higher risk of “hippocampal atrophy,” or an early sign of Alzheimer’s—six times more than “abstainers”—the study showed a triple risk for moderate drinkers.
Although we know that excessive alcohol use damages the brain, other indirect factors have been shown to be culprits, such as when a person suffers from a lack of thiamine. Studies show that chronic alcohol consumption leads to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. (80 percent of people struggling with alcoholism have), resulting from poor nutrition and difficulty absorbing thiamine from the gastrointestinal tract. The problem?
Thiamine—found in bread, whole grains, fortified cereals, meat, poultry, nuts, and beans, among other foods—is an essential nutrient critical for the proper function of tissue enzymes, among other roles .
The most extreme case of its deficiency can cause a severe condition of the brain, the so-called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome — characterized by mental confusion, unusual eye movements, coordination problems (short-term symptoms are called Wernicke’s encephalopathy); and memory problems and amnesia (long-term symptoms are known as Korsakoff’s psychosis).
Chronic liver disease – hepatic encephalopathy
Chronic liver disease or cirrhosis is another example of how alcohol affects the brain, but in a drastic way. Heavy and prolonged alcohol use – which can damage the liver, causing liver disease – can also lead to a critical brain disorder called hepatic encephalopathy.
During hepatic encephalopathy, the liver fails to break down alcohol, allowing excess amounts of manganese and ammonia to enter the brain. In addition to causing cognitive, coordination, and personality problems, hepatic encephalopathy can be fatal.
Although the short-term effects of alcohol may subside after you stop drinking, the long-term reversal of how alcohol affects the brain is still a matter of debate among researchers. So if you want to maintain a healthy brain, preventing alcohol abuse is the best alternative for now.
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