Your Brain on Booze: Alcohol and the Brain

We have previously stated that small amounts of alcohol, wine or champagne can be good for your health and your brain. But of course, we all know that consuming too much alcohol can lead to impairment, injury, and death. What happens in your brain when you consume alcohol, both in the short term and the long term? We thought it would be interesting to explore a few facts about the neuroscience of drinking. 

Brain benefits of moderate drinking

Studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption has positive health benefits for the body and brain. A large Harvard study in 14,000 middle-aged women found that women who drank between ½ an ounce and 1 ounce of alcohol per day were more likely to remain free of chronic illness and memory loss as they aged. Other studies have linked the resveratrol found in red wine to heart and brain health benefits, and suggest that regular moderate consumption of red wine may slow aging.

Another study recently found that low to moderate daily champagne consumption seemed to improve communication between brain cells and boost the electrical signals.

Your brain on booze: what happens in the brain when a person drinks alcohol

Several parts of the brain are affected when you drink. The frontal lobes, which are involved in evaluating choices and making decisions, become more and more suppressed with the more drinks you have. This is why drunk people may find themselves over-sharing, losing control of emotions or willpower, overeating, or engaging in risky behaviors.

A related set of outcomes occurs because the brain's amygdala is also suppressed. The amygdala is often known as the "fight or flight" organ and is responsible for helping us perceive danger. After a few drinks, the amygdala's dampening responses may be responsible for encouraging you to have "just one more drink" or stay out later than you had originally planned, as you fear the consequences of doing so less than you did before you started drinking. WIth more drinks, the fear response dampens to the point that it can seriously weaken control and fear and contribute to thinking those risky behaviors are a good idea.

If you're wondering why people who drink a lot can't remember what happened the night before, it's because drinking can also close down the brain's hippocampus, a structure that's key for making and retaining memories. 

Possible negative long term effects of drinking alcohol

Alcoholics may experience brain damage related to drinking. There are a few things that can happen when people drink a lot of alcohol over a long period of time. While it can't kill brain cells, it can damage the dendrites, which are the branch-like ends of the brain cells. Dendrites are key for passing messages from one neuron to another, so a degradation of the dendrites can cause cognitive problems. Recent research shows that dendrite damage can be reversed with certain kinds of therapy and training.

Another brain disorder that alcoholics may develop is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. People with Wernicke-Korsakoff generally suffer from problems with memory, confusion, eye paralysis, and lack of muscle coordination. While this syndrome may lead to brain cell death, it is not because of the alcohol specifically--it's actually due to thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is an important B vitamin that's crucial to neuron health, and alcoholics may lack thiamine because consuming large quantities of alcohol can disrupt thiamine absorption in the body. Alcoholics may also be malnourished, which can additionally deplete thiamine reserves.

Does alcohol kill brain cells?

You've probably heard this myth, but it's not really true. Moderate alcohol intake doesn't kill brain cells, or even damage them. That's because the amount of alcohol needed to kill brain cells would also kill the person drinking it! It is true that rampant alcohol use can damage the brain, it's not due to cell death. You can learn more about this myth here.