Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain

Some people wrongly believe that alcoholics are the only people whose brains are affected by alcohol. But any amount of alcohol that’s consumed by anyone eventually works its way into the bloodstream and, from there, into the brain. Though the effects may not be severe they exist.

On a very basic level, alcohol consumption has been shown to impair brain functions related to decision making and reflexes. These effects begin to occur long before a person is drunk, and are not associated with chronic use. Even the consumption of just one or two drinks can result in blurred vision, difficulty walking, and slurred speech. These more minor affects begin to diminish when the person stops drinking.

Experiencing a blackout is another potential consequence for both the social and chronic drinker:

  • The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines a blackout as “an interval of time for which the intoxicated person cannot recall key details of events, or even entire events.”
  • Anyone who binge drinks (consumes a large amount of alcohol in a short time period), even once, is susceptible to blackouts.
  • In addition, many people who report blacking out also report being told they engaged in risky or dangerous behavior during the time period they can’t remember.
  • Thus, not only is the brain at risk during a black out, but so is a person’s overall health and well being.

A chronic abuser is likely to experience these same effects, but will also have issues with problem solving, abstract thinking, and memory recall — among other challenges.

One of the more severe effects of chronic alcohol abuse is called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is actually two co-occurring conditions:

  • The first condition, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, includes difficulty with muscle coordination, paralysis of the nerves that control eye movement, and mental confusion.
  • The second part of the syndrome, Korsakoff’s psychosis, is characterized by chronic learning and memory problems.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is also sometimes referred to as alcohol dementia.

Brain damage caused by alcohol abuse can be severe and permanent — but brain damage is just one of the many risks that are associated with the misuse of alcohol. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or alcoholism, seek help as soon as possible.

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