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How Does Alcohol Affect The Brain And Central Nervous System

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Key takeaways:

  • Alcohol abuse has significant economic costs and detrimental effects on physical and mental health.
  • Alcohol is a depressant that affects the central nervous system and brain chemicals, leading to various negative outcomes.
  • Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, plays a crucial role in addiction, and excessive alcohol consumption can lead to addiction.
  • Alcohol abuse can cause brain cell contraction, damage memory, and cognitive functions, affecting the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, hypothalamus, pituitary gland, medulla, and hippocampus.
  • Adolescent brains are more vulnerable to alcohol-related brain damage, leading to poor judgment, decision-making, and difficulty learning new information.
  • Long-term effects of alcohol abuse include hallucinations, seizures, reduced energy levels, brain shrinkage, cognitive impairment, and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.
  • Alcohol detoxification, therapy, medications, inpatient or outpatient rehab, and the 12 Steps program with Lantana are potential avenues for treatment.

The overall economic cost of alcohol abuse is immense but that’s not it; alcohol abuse also has devastating effects on one’s health, both mentally and physically. It produces a wide range of negative outcomes, the mildest of which is headaches and the most damaging one is long-term brain damage. Almost every drinker experiences changes to the functioning of his/hers short-term nerve systems.

Alcohol is known to easily cross membrane barriers and produces wide-ranging and diverse effects on the central nervous system (CNS) which can quickly mess up basic bodily functions, memory, and cognitive functioning or manifest as motor incoordination, sleep induction (hypnosis), anxiety, and amnesia. Alcohol abuse can affect brain chemicals, including glutamate, which govern brain functions. When drinking alcohol, the depressants also affect breathing and heart rate which is why a lot of people blackout or become nauseous when they drink. This “blacking-out” can become fatal if it continues and is not given proper medical attention.  Central nerves have a responsibility for bringing information into the five senses, along with motor and cognitive functions. It also controls emotions. All of this gets affected by alcohol consumption.

Alcohol Is A Depressant

The central nervous system is the body’s most important organ. It controls everything from muscle movements to how quickly you can think. If an individual has an alcohol overdose it could directly affect the central nervous system, and affect the person’s mental state in many negative ways such as slurring speech or changing judgment calls due to a lack of concentration skills.

The first thing that comes into play when someone consumes alcoholic beverages is that they become less responsive than usual because alcohol affects depresses our ability to react effectively. Alcohol affects neurotransmitter activity which activates or inhibits neurons firing in specific areas of the brain depending on their location. This area is called the ‘neurotransmitter cascade’. Because there are many neurotransmitters with different ways to regulate neuronal activity, no two drinks are alike. Some people react less to the sedating effects of alcohol intoxication as compared to others. Researchers believe individuals may drink more than usual in order to compensate for not feeling sedated by their drinks as quickly or completely, leading them into experiencing negative side effects such as death from overdose, if it goes unchecked-a terrifying thought!

Alcohol damages central nervous system

Dopamine and The Brain

The brain is a complicated organ that contains neurotransmitters, which send signals between cells and travel throughout the rest of your body. One such messenger system in charge of transmitting information from one part to another is dopamine. It is centered right where you would expect them: inside our motivation center (and pleasure) along with some other goodies like creativity or mood swings!

Dopamine is the pleasure hormone. Dopamine release naturally increases in our brain when we experience something pleasurable, like eating a delicious meal or exercising, and spending time with friends. Excessive alcohol consumption triggers much higher than normal levels of dopamine which causes people who drink repeatedly to continue experiencing this behavior again which leads them towards addiction. When alcohol enhances this chemical, it can make us feel better; but too much might lead to something more serious like depression.

Tolerance occurs when the brain becomes accustomed to high levels of dopamine because of alcohol consumption. As the natural production rate of dopamine drops, it demands a greater amount from drinking habits and leads to dependency on this drug which can have damaging effects if stopped suddenly or withdrawn without proper medical supervision.

Is alcohol harmful to brain cells?

“Alcohol can affect several parts of the brain, but, in general, contracts brain tissues, destroys brain cells, as well as depresses the central nervous system” (Alcoholism and its Effects on the Central Nervous System, Mukherjee, 2013.) It often comes to mind when we say we should cut back and stop using dangerous behavior because this will “kill our brains.” Can alcohol actually damage brain cells? Researchers at Harvard Medical School believe drinking damages brain cells which are responsible for processing thoughts and help to control movement and communicate information between neurons and other parts of the brain. The effects of alcohol and smoking on the white matter may cause heightened damage to the body.

What parts of the brain does alcohol consumption affect?

The Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex is the thinking center of our central nervous system. It’s where we process incoming information and make judgments, decisions, or assessments about what’s happening around us in life – it helps to keep us sane! Alcohol abuse can have some effects on this function if used long-term because its depressive qualities slow down input from sensory organs while also clouding thoughts with confusion; these are all things you don’t want your brain doing when taking care of yourself physically as well mentally. Alcohol overdose will make things take longer because there are more steps needed before they can be processed properly by these important areas inside your brain stem known as “cortical” structures (which means their function depends largely upon how much alcohol you’ve consumed). This damage isn’t reversible unless undone through sobriety recovery efforts.

The Cerebellum

The region of the nervous system known as the cerebellum is responsible for coordination and balance. When it becomes impaired by alcohol, people may experience unsteadiness while walking or standing, staggering when approaching an object that they would normally jump over without thinking about too much (like a low wall), and falling down if not careful enough to avoid tripping on their own feet before reaching whatever destination he/she had in mind when the drinking began. This can happen even when fully sober! It’s also possible your hands might start shaking due to both behaviors occurring at once: drink causing loose control over body movements and hand tremor caused simply by holding onto something too long without release.

The Hypothalamus and the Pituitary Gland

The human brain has a lot of control over our body and acts as the link between the mind, moods/feelings, and physical states such as hunger or desire. The hypothalamus is one region of the nervous system in this chain that links together nervous system activities with hormonal processes via secretions from pituitary gland structures located at its base (the acronym “THY” stands for thyroid hormone output). Alcohol can disrupt these systems by reducing production or increasing release which leads to disrupted balance among other things including increased libido.

The Medulla

The medulla is a vital organ that controls important functions, such as breathing and consciousness. It also affects body temperature in many ways including slowing it down when you are tired or putting someone into comas due to alcohol dependence of automatic behaviors which can be life-threatening!

The Hippocampus

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that controls memory. Alcohol consumption can impact this area, leading to neuronal damage and further memory and cognitive impairment. Alcohol can hinder brain function causing blackouts, affecting your ability to learn new information or remember things as you go through life, and lessening mental faculty over time due in large part because chronic usage affects our brains’ neurotransmitters – those chemical messengers between cells whose job it is transport signals across tiny distances inside each complex organ system (neurotransmitter). This leads us into having worse memories which then impacts how old people may feel themselves getting despite any cognitively-driven attempts at prevention by employing certain strategies like not drinking alcohol every day but instead only on weekends; taking breaks from binge drinking and alcohol abuse.

What is the impact of alcohol abuse on the developing brain?

Teenagers are developing their brains, making them more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol abuse. Research shows that teenagers who start drinking early will be prone to addiction later in life as well – so it’s important for parents and teachers alike to understand how this happens at an adolescent level!

Adolescents are more susceptible to alcohol-related brain damage than adults because their brains go through important developmental changes that occur at this time in life, including improvements to decision-making skills and an increased connection between the memory center oneself, which lasts until the early 20s. And all those who make a habit of binge drinking during these teenage years will surely feel its consequences later in life.

teen central nervous system affected by alcohol

Difficulty Learning New Information

The adolescent brain is still developing, so any damage done to it can have a negative effect on the rest of your life. Studies show that those who drink often and heavily might experience smaller hippocampus as they age because alcohol damages these cells in an area crucial for memory function – including recent memories. This makes them more susceptible than adults when trying to recall past events or experiences. Alcohol dependence also interferes with something called long-term potentiation (LTP), where nerve endings create new connections between neurons after being stimulated together. The changes that take place in your brain during adolescence can affect how well you learn and remember new things for the rest of your life.

Poor Judgment and Decision Making

One of the major changes that take place in our brain as we age is a slowing down or maturing process for controlling impulses. The teenage years are a time when youthfulness meets impulsivity. It’s not surprising then, that the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for things like rational thinking and personality development among other functions is still maturing in these individuals. Because of this impulsive behavior, teenagers are more likely to try “exciting” things just for the fun of it. One such thing which has been portrayed as fun and exciting by the media is alcohol. Because of the glamorization that has been associated with alcohol use in movies and society, teenagers are often tempted to try it out.

Add teenagers developing brain and alcohol and this lethal combination can lead the young, impressionable children to become more irrational or less inhibiting than they would otherwise have been had it not been for alcohol abuse. However, there has been some research done on how this affects adolescents differently depending upon their level of education with those without formal schooling being at greater risk. It’s important to note how teenagers can be quick and reactive without necessarily meaning harm! So alcohol use only makes that impulse control worse.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use on Brain Function

Hallucinations And Seizures

Acute withdrawal from alcohol can be a terrifying experience. Some of the worst symptoms are visual hallucinations and alcohol withdrawal seizures, which happen in about 5% of those who go through withdrawal. This leads to delirium tremens (DTs), one step away from dying due to your body’s inability to process toxins without help. This can also result in memory loss. Hence, alcohol consumed in an excessive amount can result in permanent brain damage.

Reduced Energy Levels

Excessive drinking can cause people to always be low on energy. neurotransmitters are the brain’s messengers. When they’re damaged, it can slow down communication between different areas and reduce the energy levels of the person. Alcohol use over a prolonged period of time can cause cognitive impairment as well as constant fatigue.

Brain Shrinkage

We have already established that alcohol use can cause irreversible brain damage. Researchers from the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) found that people with chronic alcoholism are at risk for shrinking brains. A study published in 2017 by British Medical Journal shows how excessive alcohol exposure may lead to reduced gray matter volume which contains brain cell bodies as well as white-matter tracts running between them like wires connecting appliances together. All this damage to brain health causes you not only to become less intelligent but also to lose some permanent cognitive impairment if it doesn’t get fixed soon enough!

Cognitive Function

The greatest risk for alcohol-induced dementia occurs in the areas of your brain responsible for problem-solving and impulse control. This is due largely because these regions are heavily involved with language processes, which can become impaired after an injury or illness that results from cognitive impairment caused by drinking too much over time.

5. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome can result from severe thiamine deficiency, leading to life-threatening levels of alcohol-induced brain damage. Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome may include confusion and disorientation as well as malnourishment; it could also cause jerky eye movements or poor balance which are all related to memory problems (since this affects your ability for judgment). Korsakov would be more likely caused by an inability on the part towards recognition rather than simply forgetting things over time.

Thiamine and Memory Issues

Increasing imaging technologies have begun unraveling the relationship between alcohol and memory. It has been suggested that most organ brain syndromes in alcoholics are variants of the Wernicke-Korsackoff syndrome whereas alcoholic dementia cannot be considered separate. Alcohol can cause neurotoxicity on the cortical neurons, although most damage may be secondary to diencephalic pathological phenotype.

Long-Term Nervous System Damage

People who drink excessively often suffer from alcoholic neuropathy. Neuropathy means nerve damage. For heavy drinkers, such damage occurs partly when excessive drinking often damages nerve tissue in the peripheral brain. The constant lack of food plays another factor. Neuropathy may develop slowly and it may be caused by: A person who cuts out alcohol can help prevent worse onset. However, there is no cure to restore nerve functioning.

Alcohol affecting nervous system

Neuropathy and Ataxia

The effects of alcohol use can cause Saturday night palsy which occurs from nerve compression in the wake of sleep if the patient is drunk. The recovery process is normally complete. Chronic alcohol usage is common with chronic peripheral and sensory neuropathy. Asymptomatic people have pain, nausea, blistering feet, and hyperaesthesias. muscle weakness or decreased tendon reflexes can also be present. This neuropathy is associated with thiamine deficiencies and may exhibit some relief through alcohol and thiamine supplementation.

Acute Intoxication

Blood alcohol concentration is a measure of intake, tolerance, as well as effect on others. Extreme intoxication leads to greater drowsiness and coma, accompanied by a decreased tendon reflex and symptoms include hypertension and hypothermia. Death is possible if the alcohol concentration reaches over 200 mg/mL. Severely drunk patients are often admitted to the hospital and are treated with special care with closely monitored and respiratory assistance.

Despite hundreds of more published studies on alcohol-induced brain damage, it seems that alcohol-induced cells die out. Many chronic AUD patients exhibit neurocognitive and neurovascular injuries as an outcome of BBB dysfunction. BBBs are highly selective semipermeable membranes formed by brain microvascular endothelial cells. The pericytes and the astrocytes attach to the BMVEC ensuring BBB structural rigidity by forming the tight junction, which is both effective and beneficial in maintaining normal brain homeostasis.

The unconsciousness caused by excessive alcohol consumption can be a sign of a toxic overdose. Alternatively called alcohol poisoning. A drinking overdose occurs when a person drinks alcoholic beverages that affect areas of their brain affecting life-support functions like breathing, heart rate, and temperature. Intoxications occur in people when their levels of alcohol interfere with their basic physiological functions. In a blackout, the data store is shut down.

Does alcohol kill brain cells?

What happens if you drink too much? You can permanently damage your brain. The statement “kill their brain cells” is often used to warn people about the dangers of harmful behaviors, such as drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Researchers found that this damage was particularly severe in parts of the unconscious mind-the “white matter” which helps with impulses. So when you consume alcohol, you are literally killing your brain cells.

What happens to your brain when you stop drinking?

Alcoholism disorders affect many parts of the brain that function. When the human brain gets used to drinking more it becomes harder to give up drinking. When one decides not to smoke they are likely to suffer withdrawal from alcohol and have re-activated their brain function in absence. The brain no longer releases the same level of dopamine and other neurotransmitter chemicals as when consuming alcohol. The mind then resumes the flow of chemical compounds interrupted by alcohol.

Heavy drinkers who give up alcohol may be able to recover some brain function. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have shown that heavy users lose grey matter volume over time, but if they stay away from drinks for two weeks or more the lost tissue begins regenerating at a rapid pace and within just several months’ sobriety all signs of drinking recapitalize – even though these people were technically still addicted!

A study of alcoholics after six months proved the continued growth in brain tissue that was previously observed among patients who had consumed small amounts, suggesting there are more subtle indicators for an individual’s healing process when they stop consuming alcohol and work with Lantana. When you heal your brain, it gives back more than just pure functionality. You experience an increase in cognitive performance as a result of all the new pathways created to complete tasks impacted by alcohol abuse.

Recovery From Alcohol Abuse

Although recovery can be challenging, research shows that the emphasis on sobriety and healthy choices can provide support to improve mental health. The brain is very able to adapt to the effects of chronic drinking as it heals quickly and effectively. During recovery partners selection it’s important that the person that treats alcoholics understands the effects of alcohol and drugs on their brain structure and subsequently gives a suitable treatment plan accordingly.

Alcohol Rehab Near You

If you or your loved one is looking for a nationally recognized and respected addiction treatment center in South Carolina, Lantana Recovery is a specialized alcohol rehab in Charleston. Lantana Recovery provides part-hospitalization rehab services and outpatient rehab services to people struggling with addiction.  Lantana Recovery extends its alcohol rehab services to Greenville residents and we extend our alcohol rehab services to Columbia residents and surrounding towns.

Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Ideally, a person can recognize signs of alcohol abuse in their close friends or family. Alcohol abuse can occur at any time. While alcohol can be generally considered normal, excessive consumption isn’t the norm. The most common signs associated with alcoholism are:

  • Constant fatigue
  • Erratic behavior
  • Isolation
  • Sudden increase or decrease in weight
  • Sudden increase or decrease in appetite

Those who notice these signs should be treated quickly.

Treatment Avenues

The brain is a marvel of evolution, capable and adaptable. Though recovery can be challenging, with the right support system in place – research indicates that by focusing on sobriety as well as other healthy life choices one may begin to see positive changes in their overall mental health over time following chronic alcohol use disorder (AUD).


Detoxification is an important part of treating alcohol addiction. The detoxification process can be uncomfortable, but it’s important for your health. Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol are dangerous and could lead to life-threatening complications if left untreated! That’s why many treatment plans beginning with a week-long program of care that includes medications like anti-heat or tranquilizers are given in order to help prevent these types of medical emergencies while you’re undergoing physical withdrawals after quitting drinking entirely.

Therapy and Behavioral Modification

If you’re struggling with an alcohol use disorder, it can be difficult to know the root cause. Your doctor may refer you for one-on-one therapy or group counseling so that the therapist could help determine thoughts feelings and behaviors related not only to your AUD but also to its root cause as well! Therapy can help develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with triggers, express yourself without fear of judgment, and practice self-awareness. It’s important for people who are dependent on alcohol to learn coping skills and techniques so they can avoid drinking once they leave treatment. Your doctor might refer you to a program that teaches these things, or even just gives some advice about what else is out there besides bars in case it becomes hard without your favorite tipple at hand!

Group therapy is often the best way to treat mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, which are commonly caused by alcohol abuse. The support group helps people feel less alone in their struggle with addiction as they work towards healing themselves or helping others achieve sobriety too!


Mainly, these medications are used for treating alcohol use disorder:

Naltrexone: Naltrexone is a medication that can be used to help combat alcohol addiction. It blocks the feel-good effects of drinking, thus creating an anti-climactic reaction in those who are addicted and seeking relief from their cravings for alcoholic beverages or even just one glass on special occasions.

Acamprosate: Acamprosate is an FDA-approved medication that has been proven effective in helping people decrease their alcohol intake. The drug targets the brain’s opioid system, restoring its normal balance with other chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine, an abundant neuromodulator in the CNS, all of which help control mood by changing how we feel about things or making us think differently than before!

Disulfiram: Disulfiram is an alcohol-sensitizing drug that works by making you sick when combined with drinks. It can cause flushing, nausea, and headaches to those who consume them.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehabilitation is designed for those who want full-time care and monitoring. In these facilities, patients live in their own private rooms with constant supervision by trained professionals so they can be treated as an outpatient while getting the necessary help needed to heal from addiction or mental illness without risking return trips back into society prematurely before its time. Inpatient rehab is beneficial because it removes a person from distractions and environments where they may be surrounded by people, places, or events that can trigger an alcoholic relapse. In these stressful settings, alcoholics often drain their savings account on bottle after expensive bottle until finally hitting rock bottom at some point during treatment before eventually getting sober again! Residential stays also provide around-the-clock care which helps address any post-acute withdrawal symptoms while offering the necessary support for life beyond the incarceration period as well if needed

Outpatient Rehab

A patient’s transition from inpatient to outpatient treatment can be an effective way of managing their condition. There are different levels of support that the person may need, depending on what they’re going through during this process and how long it will take them before being able to go back to living a regular lifestyle again. Following are the types of outpatient treatments available:

1. The Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) provides intensive outpatient treatment for patients who cannot commit to an inpatient stay but still need highly supportive and structured care. This type of program can help those with chronic conditions or mental illnesses that don’t respond well enough after trying other treatments on their own, such as medication management alone

2. Intensive Outpatient Programs, also known as IOPs for short can be a great option when you are ready to get back on your feet. These intensive outpatient programs offer patients living at home the option to attend treatment 3 hours per day initially five days a week with decreasing intensity until they reach just one session every other day or once weekly depending upon what works best for them personally and financially. PHP credentials may Step down into this type of program if necessary.

3. Standard Outpatient Treatment: In outpatient treatment, the patient will have a set number of sessions that they must attend. These may vary depending on their needs and other factors. In standard outpatient care, there are two main options: single session therapy – often referred to as just one follow-up visit with your therapist after starting medication (OP), where you’ll receive some individualized advice about how best to use these drugs in order to help meet your goals.

A person can choose between inpatient or outpatient treatment depending upon their needs and what suits them financially. A lot of people choose to stay at transitional homes after attending rehab so they can transition back into life more effectively.

12 Steps Program

The 12 Steps were originally created by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) founders to help people overcome their addictions. The program gained enough success in its early days for other groups with different addictions and behaviors related to the same substances or activities, like smoking cigarettes (or anything else), adapted it accordingly – creating modified versions known collectively today as ’12+step programs’. The 12-Step model provides support, encouragement, and accountability for people who genuinely want to overcome their addiction. It also encourages the kind of social interactions that have helped countless addicts stay clean throughout recovery from drug or alcohol abuse. Following is what the 12 steps are based on:

  1. Honesty
  2. Faith
  3. Surrender
  4. Soul searching
  5. Integrity
  6. Acceptance
  7. Humility
  8. Willingness
  9. Forgiveness
  10. Maintenance
  11. Making contact
  12. Service

Bottom Line

Substance misuse can be devastating on its own but when you’re surrounded by good circumstances like family members supporting each other in sobriety; friends showing up at group sessions despite busy work schedules just because they know how much better life will feel if someone else does too! This type of fellowship makes all those days spent kicking stones seem worth it.

If you or someone in your life is struggling with alcohol addiction, treatment for alcoholism can help turn things around. You don’t need to continue living as though the negative effects of drinking are normal!


Alan Goodstat

Alan completed a postgraduate degree in social work from Columbia University in New York City and is a licensed clinical social worker in FL, NJ, NC and SC. Over the past 30 years he has worked in various leadership roles in privately held organizations and private equity portfolio companies.

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Charleston South Carolina

Located on the historic peninsula of Charleston, South Carolina, Lantana Recovery takes a modern approach to Substance Use Disorder treatment, offering intensive clinical care while also immersing our clients in local Charleston culture.