Lowdown On The Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain
How does alcohol affect the brain? Almost everyone has seen someone that has had too much to drink, the effects of the alcohol are easily detected. Slurred speech, trouble walking, behavioral changes and so forth go with drinking too much at one sitting. These are the signs of someone who has had too much to drink.
You may be wondering how alcohol causes these short term effects. The direct action of alcohol on your brain is that it is a depressant. It affects your nervous system by decreasing its activity. This may be difficult to understand because most often people who are drinking don’t seem to be all that depressed, unless they are on a crying jag, that is.
Quite often an alcoholic drink will help people relax and become more comfortable socially. They may become more talkative and outgoing. Why is this? It is because alcohol can cause disinhibition, which is defined as a temporary loss of inhibition caused by an outside stimulus.
A more complicated discussion of how alcohol affects the brain involves discussing the different parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum, the cortex, and so forth. The way the parts of the brain communicate with each other is through nerve cells connecting them together called neurons.
Nerve cells send messages to each other using electrical and chemical signals. So when you are stimulated from the outside, like with light, noise, smells, tastes and so forth, this is external stimuli being converted to electrical and chemical signals within your brain and body.
Neurotransmitters are the electrical signals generated by neurons. A neuron picks up signals from its neighboring cell using receptors. There are many types of receptors for each neurotransmitter.
There are 3 neurotransmitters that seem to be affected by alcohol consumption, the NMDA and GABA receptors play a role din the development of tolerance and dependence on alcohol. The third neurotransmitter is dopamine, which plays a role in our brain’s reward system. Dopamine is not only released by alcohol, food, sex, and other drugs will result in the release of dopamine.
A fourth neurotransmitter called serotonin also may play a role in the reward processes of alcohol in the brain. Serotonin plays a role in our moods, compulsive disorders, aggression and the effects of some other drugs.
The behavioral effects of alcohol on the brain depends on the amount of alcohol consumed, the time period over which the alcohol was drunk, if other drugs were consumed, the individuals previous drinking history, the individuals physical state, the genetic makeup of the individual, the individuals mood, and the environment where the drinking is taking place.
Research supports the idea that alcohol activates the reward pathways in your brain, which are coded there as experience and possibly memory. Once these pathways are coded, these experiences and memories can influence future behavior.
This explains why drinking is thought of as a pleasurable experience when in actuality the alcohol is poison to our bodies and it isn’t assimilated into our bodies well. This is sometimes why people will drink time and time again, they mostly remember the pleasure and not the pain (as experienced from a hangover).
My Personal Story
I only know what I have experienced myself about how alcohol affects the brain, and from watching my husband James drink alcoholically over the years. Of course I have been drunk, and have experienced the sometimes embarrassing behavior that results from loosing ones inhibitions.
My husbands brain certainly seemed to be worse for wear by the time he died. He was in full possession of his mental faculties until the end, except for when he was drunk. When he was drunk, he was rather hard to deal with as he could be a jolly drunk or a mean drunk, depending on his mood.
His memory was bad, he rarely remembered things in the same way I did. I am not sure what that was about, if the alcohol intake had something to do with his loss of memory or if he just had a poor memory. I did not notice these problems during the 3 years that we had together when he did not drink, but we were also much younger then.
Bottom line, the alcohol did affect his brain in the end when his liver disease progressed to the point of hepatic encephalopathy, when his brain was full of toxins because his liver had failed and was no longer removing them from his blood. This was a sad thing to see in someone I loved, there was absolutely no one home and the lights were out – he looked at me and it seemed he did not recognize me at all – this occurred just prior to his death.