Truth about alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain

brain chemistry

Today’s topic is separating fact from fiction: what is true about alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain.

I’m going to tear down myths about alcoholism and the brain, while highlighting the true- and often troubling- realities that are associated with drinking and the brain.

Fact: Booze Can Damage Memory.

I’m nothing if not a researcher: studies show that heavy use of alcohol can harm both long-term and short-term memory. In one study, heavy alcoholics consistently made more memory-based errors during clinical trials than non-alcoholics; alcoholics have been found have over 30% more memory-related difficulties than non-drinkers.

Long-term memory requires a large portion of brain activity to store information and subsequently to be able to retrieve this information when necessary. Big-time drinking can impair this storage and retrieval process, even if only temporarily. Far more evident and potentially damaging is the impairment which alcohol use can bring about to a person’s short-term memory.

Short-term memory frequently deals with visual and spatial requirements. Because of this, hardcore drinking makes tasks based around visuals, motor functions and short-term recall harder. A good example would be the cardinal thing you shouldn’t do when drinking: driving.

A third area of memory smacked by alcohol consumption working memory–the ability to recall and hold thoughts in your mind while at the same time completing tasks. Sorry for the jargon, but working memory thrives on memory rehearsal, recalling predetermined sequences. An example would be playing a guitar—anyone who’s seen a drunk guitar player making awkward squawks knows it’s an awkward experience.

Myth: Alcohol Kills Brain Cells.

This one’s pretty big. Most people believe this, as far as I can tell.

I’m not saying alcohol isn’t harmful—this is me we’re talking about—but just saying “kills brain cells” is misleading. Basically, the key point here is that brain cells regenerate all the time. Further, alcohol’s damage is that it fouls up the way neural connections communicate with each other.

This happens from just a little booze, but it’s temporary. However, heavy consumption of alcohol will cause some noticeable problems.

Fact: Long-term Alcohol Abuse can lead to Dementia.

Alcohol-related Dementia is an umbrella term to cover several conditions. Its symptoms are similar to other forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Because of this, there is no set method for specifically diagnosing Alcohol-related Dementia, and it can also be known to pass unnoticed in instances where other forms of dementia are already prevalent. While it is generally associated with older people, there have been examples of it occurring in people as young as 30. This sort of dementia won’t happen without tremendous amounts of drinking over a long time. There are numerous warning signs and symptoms which can be associated with Alcohol-related Dementia, including short-term memory loss, difficulty with basic motor functions and tasks such as dressing oneself, and perhaps most noticeably, changes in personality and demeanor.

Myth: DTs Consists Only of Shaking and Trembling.

The DTs, or to give it the proper name, Delirium Tremens, is a commonly recognized symptom of chronic alcoholism, in particular of alcohol withdrawal. Its infamous features, uncontrollable trembling and shaking, have made it a common part of alcoholism in fiction.

I want to clarify that Delirium Tremens go far beyond cartoonish symptoms like violent shaking. This is crucial because DTs can prove fatal to 15 to 35% of sufferers. Those who live are the ones who get treatment. This involves benzodiazepine-related drugs to act as a sedative, coupled with a tranquil and well-lit environment in which to recover. This calm environment prevents hallucinations. Left unchecked, the hallucinations associated with delirium tremens can leave the sufferer completely unaware of their real world environment.

Fact: Alcoholism can Aggravate Existing Psychiatric Disorders.

More terminology—but this one is easy enough. Dual Diagnosis is a medical term meaning that a person is simultaneously suffering from a psychiatric condition and from a substance dependency such as alcoholism. The alcoholism can often worsen the psychiatric condition, as well as making it more difficult to identify and treat by masking and mimicking symptoms. While there is no direct evidence that alcoholism causes mental disorders, they exacerbate underlying conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, often to the point where they provoke conditions which had previously gone unnoticed or undiagnosed.

Myth: The Damage to Your Brain from Alcohol Abuse is Irreversible.

Again, your friend Sam isn’t here to blow off the dangers of drinking. Far from it. But taking real facts about alcoholism seriously is a lot easier when they’re separated from myths which cloud issues by trying to get people to believe things that are far-fetched.

While excessive consumption of alcohol can hurt your brain and its functions in the ways I’ve mentioned above, it’s still a myth that this damage is irreversible. This goes back to brain cell regeneration I discussed earlier. After a person abstains from drink for years, the brain can recover from much of the damage that has been inflicted by alcohol. Unless brain damage has come about due to liver damage, there is a strong likelihood that even a heavy drinker’s brain cells remain intact

I have absolutely experienced improvements in reaction times, concentration and attention span, not to mention short-term memory, reasoning and verbal learning capacity. Beyond this, at a range of 7 years or more of abstinence, abstract and spatial reasoning will enjoy visible improvements.

Fact: Alcohol Abuse can Adversely Affect the Brain Development of Adolescents.

Drinking in one’s teen years can lead to long-lasting brain impairment and adversely affect the development of teen’s mental functioning. However, this varies greatly due to factors such family history, gender, age, drinking patterns, and any underlying psychological disorders. All these variables can lead to a young person dependent on alcohol with anything from severe mental deficiencies to no visible ill-effects at all.

Research into the brain chemistry effects of alcohol consumption on young people remains at a rather early stage, and there has not yet been reached a definitive conclusion on the subject, but it is clear that in order to maintain their mental and physiological well-being, young people and adolescents should just avoid the drink, at least until they are of age.

There are few people who would deny that indulging in alcohol to an abusive degree has dire consequences for their brain’s health, but the prevalence of downright incorrect information on the subject is liable to do more harm than good, and encourage further myths and urban legends about alcohol and its effects. Misinformation is problematic even when it appears to be highlighting the dangers of alcoholism.

It can leave people unsure of what information to follow, and leads to even more preposterous myths about alcohol such as quick-fixes for hangovers and preventative measures against becoming too drunk. The only reliable and effective countermeasures against the ill effects of alcohol are being aware of the real facts, and to rely on your common sense and instincts; know and respect your limitations- you’ll feel all the better because of it.

Photo by Neil Conway on Flickr