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Can Alcohol Abuse Cause Brain Damage?

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

March 5, 2019

Alcohol affects the brain in several ways that can result in slurred speech, blurry visions, or difficulty walking. While most of these symptoms go away after the alcohol has left the body, long-term abuse can lead to lasting brain damage.

If you’ve ever been at a social event where people have been drinking heavily, you may have observed how alcohol affects people in a variety of ways. A person may have stumbled through the crowd, exhibited sloppy speech, blurred vision, an overly slow reaction, and a faulty memory. These things occur because alcohol is affecting the brain.

You may witness a portion of these impairments even after one or two drinks, however, you can also see the symptoms resolve when you stop drinking. When a person decides to heavily consume alcohol, over an extended period of time in their lives, the brain might develop issues, some of which may linger for a significant time after sobriety.

Factors That Influence The Way Alcohol Affects The Brain

There are numerous ways that the brain is influenced by alcohol, in a capacity that can increase a person’s risk of damage to the brain. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), these include:

  • The quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption
  • How old a person was when they began drinking, and the amount of time they have been drinking for
  • A person’s general state of health and well-being
  • If they experience an increased risk due to prenatal alcohol exposure

Memory impairment can be produced even after only a few drinks, and as the amount of alcohol and the frequency of consumption goes up, so does the effects of impairment on the brain. Increasing amounts of research illustrate that binge drinking can damage the brain.

If large amounts of alcohol are consumed rapidly on an empty stomach, it can result in a blackout, or a stretch of time when the intoxicated individual can’t bring back specific details from an event, or sometimes entire events all together.

Women and social drinkers experience a higher risk of this form of memory impairment. A female is also more at risk than a male for induced memory impairments, even if they are consuming the same amount. One study of 772 college undergraduates found that that 51% of them had experienced a blackout at some point in their lives.

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Studies Of The Brain

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism referenced two studies which used computerized tomography to obtain images of brain shrinkage, a predominant sign of brain damage. The report showed that there was greater brain shrinkage in males and females who were addicted to alcohol, than in control subjects. Other studies have also brought to light how men and women have the same learning and memory issues, as an aftermath of heavy drinking.

The frightening difference is that the addicted women said that they had been drinking heavily for only half as long as the addicted men. This shows how women’s brains, like their other organs, are much more sensitive to alcohol-induced damage. There has been other studies that have not shown such definitive findings. More research is needed on this topic, as the results have been somewhat mixed.

Alcohol-Related Brain Impairment

Alcohol affects the brain in toxic ways, impacting the central nervous system to an extent that brain impairment occurs. This group of problems is called alcohol-related brain impairment (ARBI). ARBI happens more frequently to those who drink heavily and over a long period of times, but binge drinkers are also at risk. Depending on what part of the brain has been damaged, symptoms can include problems with cognition, memory, physical coordination, visuospatial abilities (“perceiving and remembering the relative locations of objects in 2- and 3-dimensional space”), and cognitive abilities.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that “Most alcoholics exhibit mild-to-moderate deficiencies in intellectual functioning, along with diminished brain size and regional changes in brain-cell activity. ” They continue to tell us that an individual with an alcohol addiction often encounters a brain that is less dense, and includes a reduction in brain volume within “the outer layer (i.e., the cortex) of the frontal lobe, which is considered a major center of higher mental functions; and the cerebellum, which is responsible largely for gait and balance as well as certain aspects of learning.”

The good news is that they share that many aspects of this damage may be reversible, stating that a person’s brain volume may increase, with improvements in attention, memory, and visuospatial abilities. This may occur over a period of several months to a year, after abstinence is achieved.

Liver Disease Linked To Brain Disorders

Many people are informed that heavy, consistent drinking damages the liver. This organ’s job is to break down alcohol into a harmless byproduct and clear it from the body. The one thing most people aren’t aware of though, is how prolonged liver dysfunction as a result of heavy alcohol consumption, such as cirrhosis, can hurt the brain.

With a new imaging technique, researchers have been able to study targeted areas of the brain in patients who suffer from alcoholic liver disease, allowing them to have a greater understanding of how hepatic encephalopathy forms. What they found is that it is due to two dangerous byproducts, ammonia and manganese, being released into the brain from cells within the liver that have been damaged by alcohol abuse.

These liver complications can lead to a much more serious and potentially deadly brain disorder called hepatic encephalopathy. This disorder leads to changes in a person’s sleeping habits, moods, and personality. It may cause mental health disorders like anxiety or depression, a decreased attention span, and asterixis which causes a person’s hands to shake or flap. In order to prevent or treat the progression of hepatic encephalopathy, a physician may implement several of the following strategies:

  • Giving a patient L–ornithine and L–aspartate in an attempt to lower blood ammonia concentrations.
  • Using “artificial livers,” to remove damaging toxins from the patient’s blood.
  • Administering a liver transplant. This has been shown to improve cognitive function.
  • Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome

Compulsive and extended drinking can damage the brain in yet another way. Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome, or “wet brain,” is a type of brain damage that occurs from a thiamine, or vitamin B1, deficiency. This condition is actually two distinct syndromes, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis, that latter of which can last for the long term and have crippling effects.

The former syndrome may cause impaired muscle coordination, a confused mental state, and paralyzation of the nerves that are responsible for eye movement. NIAAA states that 80-90 percent of people with this syndrome may progress to the more serious Korsakoff’s psychosis, which can cause difficulty walking, chronic issues with learning and retaining information, specifically retrograde and anterograde amnesias. This condition may causes permanent brain damage that requires custodial care, however, if caught early enough, thiamine treatments may help to better brain function.

Reach Out And Protect Your Brain’s Health

Alcohol abuse, including binge drinking, can damage your brain. Fortunately, a wide variety of treatments exist that utilize the following methods to help you get sober: detoxification, behavioral therapies, counseling, group and individual therapy, and nutritional support.

If you’re concerned that your alcohol consumption is damaging your body or brain, please get help now. If you or a loved one is showing signs of ARBI, please reach out and contact us today. Getting the help you need can help prevent further damage, and bring about the emotional, mental, and physical healing you need in your life. Contact us today.

Victoria State Government - Alcohol related brain impairment

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Alert: Number 53, July 2001

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Alert: Number 63, October 2004

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