Alcohol and Brain Damage

Does Alcohol Cause Brain Damage?

You know the old adage that drinking alcohol kills brain cells? Well, It turns out there is actually something to that. Numerous studies show that perpetual, heavy drinking can cause significant mental deficits, mostly in the form of gray matter. While chronic drinking will affect anyone, alcohol use during critical periods of brain development such as prenatally or during teenage years is particularly dangerous.

 Animated brain standing behind ethanol still.


But how much alcohol is too much and when are you at risk for neural loss?


Firstly, it’s important to note that alcohol doesn’t actually cause brain cells to die. In fact, some research suggests that moderate drinking can have some health benefits, including improved cognitive abilities and lowered cholesterol levels.


One study that involved comparing the number of neurons found in the brains of alcoholics and non-alcoholics found that there was no difference in neocortical neurons between the two groups.


Alcohol does, however, damage the dendrites located in the cerebellum of your brain and this, in turn, reduces the communication between neurons. Researchers discovered that binge drinking not only disrupts communication between neurons - it can alter their structure. Chronic use of alcohol can also cause gray matter of the brain to build up. Gray matter is the same stuff associated with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and chronic head trauma in football players. In other words, while alcohol doesn’t actually kill brain cells, it does impact how your brain functions.


Long-term alcohol abuse can also lead to a deficiency in thiamine which can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is a serious neurological disorder characterized by memory loss, amnesia, and lack of muscle coordination and motor skills.


Something else to consider: While alcohol might not actually "kill" brain cells, research does suggest that high levels of alcohol can interfere with neurogenesis or the formation of NEW brain cells.


Here’s the good news: you actually can reverse the impact of chronic drinking by (shocker!) stopping drinking. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. But if you are a heavy drinker and you want to reverse the impact alcohol has had on your brain, giving up alcohol for a prolonged period of time can heal the brain and return it back to its normal, healthier state.


Bottom line: you can enjoy a glass or two of wine at dinner every few nights. However, drinking heavily can have long-term consequences. It’s not too late to restore the brain damage that may have occurred by quitting drinking cold turkey.

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