Brain Fact: Moderate alcohol use doesn’t kill brain cells, and while rampant alcohol use can damage the brain, it’s not due to cell death
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!
That doesn’t mean that alcohol can’t damage the brain, though. Alcoholics can experience brain damage related to drinking, but it’s not because alcohol kills brain cells. 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.