How Alcohol Attacks The Brain

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How Alcohol Attacks The Brain graphic © healthinfocus.net. Background image – fotolia.com © adimas

In low doses, say a few beers or a few shots of liquor, alcohol is a mild depressant. It causes relaxation and in others, even euphoria (or feelings of elation). However, these effects do not last, making way for the dreaded hangover – characterized by sensitivity to light and sound, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. The higher the dose of alcohol, the more likely a person is to pass out. [1]

Notice that all these symptoms are linked to the functions of the brain? That means alcohol directly affects the drinker’s central nervous system, specifically the system’s major organ – the brain. Symptoms worsen with more frequent and higher intake of alcohol.

You might have thought that after the hangover has gone, you are completely back to normal. However, studies have revealed that both long-term and short-term alcohol abuse can irreversibly damage brain tissue.

According to a study by Oscar-Berman and Marinković in 2007, [2] the parts of the brain that are most vulnerable to damage from alcohol abuse are the frontal lobes, limbic system, and cerebellum. As alcohol affects these areas, it interferes with the brain’s normal function. But the scary part is that these areas can shrink or become atrophied, causing mild to severe dysfunction which may or may not be reversible even after alcohol abstinence.

The Fontal Lobe

The saying that “alcohol lowers inhibitions” is absolutely correct! However the higher the alcohol content is in the blood, the more likely a person is to make poor and risky decisions – decisions that he or she may regret the morning after. This is linked directly to how alcohol affects the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for decision making and memory.

The Limbic System

Some people are strongly affected emotionally by alcohol – meaning they can become either very depressed or very euphoric when their blood alcohol levels get high enough. This can be attributed to the effect of alcohol on the limbic system, the area of the brain responsible for regulating certain emotions. Alcohol typically amplifies the strongest emotion the drinker is feeling – and in high doses, can cause severe depression.

Cerebellum

The cerebellum is the part of the brain that sits at the nape; it is responsible for balance and coordination. One of the most common characteristics of a drunken person is an inability to walk or stand up straight – this is because alcohol affects the cerebellum.

Alcoholism

In certain places in the world, alcohol is an integral part of a meal – like wine in Italy or beer in Germany. While drinking alcohol socially is not considered a problem and can even potentially have certain health benefits (relaxation and heart health from the resveratrol in red wine), the damage alcohol does to the brain has been studied and proven. But drinking too much alcohol can cause severe health problems, especially if a person drinks enough alcohol to be considered alcoholic. Alcoholics typically exhibit: (1) risky behavior (2) depression, and (3) poor motor control – all indicative of damage to the frontal lobe, limbic system, and cerebellum. [3]

Alcoholism is characterized by risky drinking patterns and behavior. Alcoholics are typically noted with aggressive and violent behavior, which worsens as time goes on. This condition is not only damaging to a person’s physical health, but mental and emotional health as well. It can also greatly damage a person’s relationships with others. [4] If a person has a personal or familial history of alcoholism or alcohol abuse, it would be better to avoid alcohol completely.

References:

[1] Hendler, R., et. al. (2013). Stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21560041

[2] Oscar-Berman, M. & Marinković, K. (2007). Alcohol: Effects on Neurobehavioral Functions and the Brain. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11065-007-9038-6

[3] Harper, C. , et. al. (2003). Neuropathological alterations in alcoholic brains. Studies arising from the New South Wales Tissue Resource Center. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278584603001556

[4] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44358/

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