Alcohol's effect on the brain
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways. This causes the loss of control that happens when we are drunk.
In the longer term, drinking too much alcohol can damage, shrink or kill brain cells, changing the way the brain looks and works. If we drink heavily over a long period of time there can be longer-lasting changes or even permanent changes to the brain.
What problems can alcohol cause with the brain?
The symptoms of brain damage include:
- Poor memory
- Coordination problems
- Problems with temperature control
- Mood changes
- Learning and concentration difficulties
- Mental health problems, like anxiety and depression
Alcohol can affect the brain in different ways to cause these problems:
- The alcohol can upset the brain’s chemistry. For example, it can lower the level of the mood-control chemical serotonin in the brain, which can lead to symptoms of depression.1
- Alcohol may stop new brain cells developing.2
- Alcohol, a neurotoxin, can cause damage to nerve cells and blood vessels, leading to brain shrinkage.
- People who drink heavily, especially people who are dependent on alcohol, can have a deficiency of the vitamin B1 (thiamine).3 Thiamine deficiency can cause serious conditions like Wernickes-Korsakoff’s Syndrome.
Wernickes-Korsakoff’s Syndrome is a brain disorder. It is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine). Many dependent drinkers lack vitamin B1, partly because their diet may be poor and also because alcohol affects the body’s ability to absorb and use vitamin B1.4
Wernickes-Korsakoff’s Syndrome includes two separate but related conditions: Wernickes Encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s Amnesic Syndrome.
Wernicke’s-Encephalopathy is a short-lived but life threatening condition. It causes three main symptoms:
- Muscle problems (ataxia) – Legs may tremble or the person may walk with his/her legs spread wide apart.
- Changes in eye movements – Not being able to move the eyes normally, jerking movements in the eyes, double vision.
- Confusion – Being confused and not understanding what’s happening
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor straight away. If not treated, Wernickes-Encephalopathy can cause death or can lead to the development of Korsakoff-Amnesic Syndrome.
Korsakoff’s-Amnesic Syndrome is a longer-term brain disorder. It causes the following symptoms:
- Memory problems – Not being able to remember things, create new memories, or learn new information. Forgetting things a short time after they happened.
- Making things up – Filling up gaps in the memory with made-up stories.
- Hallucinations – Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.
Can you reverse brain damage caused by alcohol?6
In most types of brain damage caused by alcohol, it’s possible to recover completely or partially by stopping drinking (and taking supplements, if there is a vitamin deficiency).
Around a quarter of people will recover fully, a quarter will make a significant recovery, and a quarter will make a partial recovery.
For around a quarter of people, the changes will be permanent.
What can I do to reduce my risk?
Stay within low risk drinking guidelines and avoid binge drinking
This can prevent problems happening and improve symptoms you may already have. In many cases, damage to the way your brain works can be reversed by staying within low-risk drinking guidelines.
Be alert for signs of brain damage
Spotting signs of brain damage early can improve the chances of recovery.
See http://www.drugs.ie/resourcesfiles/guides/ARBIFamilyGuide2.pdf for signs to watch
Take vitamin B1 (thiamine) supplements if you have memory problems or you drink heavily
Try to cut down or stop for a while
If you feel your drinking may be affecting your mental functions or your mental health, you could cut down and see if things improve. For tips on cutting down, click here.
If you have trouble stopping or cutting down or feel you need extra support, talk to your GP or see our section on dependence.