Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells? How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Last Updated: June 30, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

The primary effects of alcohol are mostly reflected in the way that the user reacts after drinking. Perhaps the most common reason for drinking is its effect on dopamine levels in the brain and the pleasure center, but there are many more angles to this.

Drinking affects the brain in various negative ways too. There are specific areas affected by these effects more than others, including the limbic system, thalamus, hypothalamus, frontal lobes, right hemisphere, and neurotransmitter systems. Any alcohol-induced damage to each one of these areas has a negative result on the user.

Take a look at these effects of drinking on the brain while reviewing the notion that the substance can kill brain cells – especially when abused. For this, the text reviews the functions of the parts affected by drinking and the symptoms exhibited when these parts become damaged.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Moderate alcohol consumption is generally unharmful, but on the flip side, regular consumption of the substance in quantities higher than the recommended limit can negatively impact.

These effects may be short or long-term, depending on various factors such as level of alcoholism and frequency at which the user has been drinking the substance. So, how does alcohol affect the brain?

Some Possible Short-Term Effects Include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired short-term memory
  • Unsteady gait
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Blackouts
  • Aggression
  • Anger
  • Confusion

Longer-term effects that may occur when the user has been drinking for an extended period include:

  • Mental health problems such as psychosis or hallucinations
  • Mood/Personality changes
  • Poor blood circulation
  • The Korsakoff Syndrome
  • Brain shrinkage/atrophy
  • Dementia
  • Cardiovascular health issues
Alcohol Effects on the Brain

Effects of Alcohol On The Brain

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that the effects of alcohol on the brain appear in three main areas: the cerebellum, the cerebral cortex, and the limbic system. Symptoms shown by people suffering from alcohol-induced brain damage will be determined by the area that has been affected.

The Effects of Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage According to Each Affected Part are as Follows:

Effects of Drinking on The Cerebellum

The cerebellum’s primary responsibility is the coordination of muscle movement. Damage in this area can lead to loss of body control and changes in normal emotional control and memory function.

Consumption of alcohol during the development of a fetus impacts the cerebellum of the fetus, and children affected by ethanol will typically show symptoms of various cerebellar deficits.

Some of the More Common Resultant Effects of Damage Caused by Drinking to the Functions of the Cerebellum Include:

  • Alterations in hand movements
  • Speed of movement when throwing
  • Impaired postural stability and balance
  • Slurred speech
  • Headaches
  • Vocal changes
  • Uncontrolled eye movements
  • Dizziness
Man drinking a glass of wine.

Effects of Drinking on The Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex serves as home to most of the higher mental abilities that distinguish human beings as a species. In the cerebral cortex, alcohol depresses inhibition, causing a person to be more talkative and confident. It also blunts the senses and increases the person’s threshold for pain. However, there are more damaging effects here too.

One of such effects is the impact that drinking has on the user’s thought processes due to the way it works on the cerebral cortex. This effect can lead a person to make bad decisions and poor judgments, among other effects such as:

  • Reducing the ability to learn new information
  • Reducing the ability to retain old information
  • Reducing the ability to think logically
  • Reducing the sharpness of a person’s problem-solving skills
  • Reducing the ability to maintain impulse control

Effects of Drinking on The Limbic System

The limbic system contains the pleasure center. It is another one of the most easily affected areas when it comes to alcoholism-related damage. This network of brain structures is responsible for regulating emotions, the normal use of memory, and control of the body’s involuntary nervous system.

Alcoholism Can Affect the Limbic System in a Number of Ways. Some of These Include:

  • Vulnerability to persisting amnestic disorder is also referred to as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome.
  • Brain atrophy (shrinkage) can turn into collateral cognitive impairments and severe short-term memory loss.
  • Impairments to emotional functioning, leading to an inability to process emotions properly.
  • An increase in glutamate receptor sites in the hippocampus. This can lead to memory blackouts and epileptic seizures. Long-term EToH withdrawal can cause overactivity, which leads to neuronal death manifested by strokes or seizures.

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

How does alcohol affect the brain cells? Ethanol belongs to a class of substances called “central nervous system depressants,” so named because the substance slows down the normal speed of neurotransmitter activity. On the same note, drinking also alters the production of specific neurotransmitters.

In an area known as the pleasure center, the substance’s presence leads to a transmitter’s rising output called dopamine. Over time, a person who drinks in excessive amounts can grow accustomed to this spike in dopamine levels. It is this fundamental change that sets the stage for alcoholism.

Studies have also shown that people who drink alcohol very regularly generally have a smaller brain size than people who do not or who only drink moderately.

The studies that are most related to the direct impact of drinking on dead brain cells were conducted on animals. The discovery from these studies was the neurodegeneration of these cells in multiple brain regions. One such study was conducted on rats to understand better the concept of neuroadaptation upon chronic alcohol use.

The symptoms shown by these animals following the tests were similar to the once known to be shown by human subjects suffering from alcohol-induced brain damage. Hence, humans’ submission would show similar neurodegeneration with long-term alcoholism is a realistic place to land.

Additionally, the fact that mammalian brains are quite similar to that of humans in a composition further supports the conduction of studies on these animals to model human responses and understand better how to manage or reverse human problems medically.

When a person drinks heavily within a short amount of time, a great drop in the number of nerve cells occurs, which can cause the onset of a toxic reaction referred to as alcohol poisoning. However, to answer the question “does alcohol kill brain cells?” studies conducted by researchers on the matter do not show evidence to support the claim.

What drinking actually does (with evidence) is damage the dendrites located in the cerebellum and reduce the communication between neurons. While these disruptions can lead to other side effects – especially in chronic alcoholics, the aforementioned cells’ death does not occur.

Doctor surrounded figure of human brain.

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (ARBD)

Alcohol-related brain damage is a brain disorder that occurs as a result of long-term alcohol abuse. The disorder is particularly more likely to occur in older people (between the ages of 40 and 50) than with other age groups.

While some of the symptoms of this alcohol-related damage can be mistaken for symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, there is a key difference in the fact that ARBD does not always get worse as time passes.

In fact, if a person suffering from the condition weans off drinking and seeks treatment alongside good support, a partial or full recovery is on the cards. This, of course, is also dependent on how early the person seeks treatment.

Causes of ARBD

As the name already suggests, ARBD directly results from binge-drinking and/or long-term drinking habits. There is a recommended drinking limit for various demographics, and when these limits are exceeded with regularity, there is a risk of suffering ARBD.

Typically, the Following Damages May Lead to ARBD:

  • Nerve cell damage: binge-drinking can be toxic to the nerve cells and cause them to degenerate or shrink. This gives the brain fewer resources (cells) to carry out tasks, and these effects will show up in the form of ARBD symptoms.
  • Blood vessel damage: alcoholism can damage the head’s blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure. This, in turn, can lead to strokes, which is another symptom of ARBD.
  • Low VItamin B1 levels: high levels of alcohol in the system also stops the natural production of thiamine (also known as Vitamin B1). This is a vital vitamin for the brain’s proper functioning, and more abuse will only lead to even more reduced levels of the Vitamin in the body.
  • Increased risk of head/other injuries: the increased likelihood of injuries to the head when under the influence of alcohol is also a point to consider. Drinking can cause a person to be less in control of balance and movement, leading to falls and trips. If one hits the head in any of these possible scenarios, ARBD can occur.

Types of ARBD

When a person is diagnosed with ARBD, various possible types of the condition would determine the exact symptoms that this person would show. The types of ARBD are as follows:

Brain Shrinkage (Atrophy)

When excessive alcohol intake occurs over an extended period, it does lead to significant shrinkage in the size of the brain’s crucial neurons. In turn, this shrinkage contributes to an overall decrease in the organ’s mass or volume.

Any Substantial Loss in Brain Mass Can Develop of a Range of Problems, Including:

  • Learning difficulties
  • Memory disruption
  • Unstable mood
  • Unstable sleep patterns
  • Unusual fluctuations in body temperature
  • A declining ability to control muscle movement

Hepatic Encephalopathy

Any assessment of how drinking affects the brain must also include indirect sources of damage. One example of the potential for indirect harm is a condition called hepatic encephalopathy (which roughly translates as liver-related ARBD). In people affected by this condition, the presence of alcoholic liver disease leads to the release of manganese, ammonia, and other poisonous substances into the bloodstream. These substances find their way to the brain, and when they do, they can severely damage the neurons and other cells.

Potential Consequences of Hepatic Encephalopathy Include:

  • Symptoms of depression
  • Unusual changes in personality
  • Unusual changes in mood
  • Sleep problems
  • Declining muscle coordination

In a worst-case scenario, people affected by this disorder can fall into a coma or die.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Another indirect cause of ARBD from drinking, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, occurs in people who develop a persistent B vitamin thiamine shortage. The first stage of this condition, Wernicke encephalopathy, produces damage in two structures in the limbic system: the hypothalamus and the thalamus.

Its Possible Consequences Include:

  • Muscle coordination problems accompanied by leg tremors
  • Double vision and other changes in normal eye function
  • Confusion
  • Symptoms of withdrawal
  • A decline in mental function that can eventually result in a coma

In most cases, the symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome (also known as Korsakoff psychosis) appear when the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy start to fade. In addition to the hallucinations common to most forms of psychosis, this syndrome can trigger:

  • Possibly severe memory loss
  • Loss of new memory production
  • A tendency to tell false stories

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Alcohol-related damage is not restricted to the user alone. In cases where the alcoholic is pregnant, the damage can be passed on to the fetus in the form of the FAS. For this to happen, the alcohol in the system of the user will pass through the umbilical to the fetus, and the fetus – being underdeveloped – will be unable to process the substance.

In the United States, where about half of women are unaware of their pregnancies until the first month is over, FAS is a bigger risk because the women may be drinking without the knowledge of everything going on in their bodies.

FAS can cause stillbirths and miscarriages. In cases where the baby survives, some developmental disorders can still occur as a result of the syndrome.

These Include:

  • Low IQ
  • Impaired learning ability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Distinct facial features
  • Poor vision or hearing
  •  Small head size
  • Heart, bone, and kidney disorders
  • Below average weight and height
  • Sleeping issues
  • Sucking problems at the stage of infancy

Neurogenesis Issues

While drinking does not directly lead to the death of brain cells, the activity of the substance in the area can hinder the production of new cells. The risk of those is greatly increased with long-term abuse, which will disrupt the process of neurogenesis.

Neurologist explaining ARBD to the patient.

Effects of Alcohol on the Developing Brain

Drinking is generally not advised for anyone below the age of 18, at any level. This is because, at this stage, the brain is still developing, and any hindrance to this development can cause permanent damage. In this context, alcohol would be that hindrance.

Considering that there is no empirical study on the amount of alcohol required to trigger this sort of behavior in the brain of developing children, it is advised to completely stay away from drinking.

The risk is particularly great for children aged under 15. 15 to 17-year-olds are still advised to delay the act of drinking for as long as possible.

Based on Available Evidence, Some of the Effects of Drinking Here Include:

  • Lack of coordination
  • Impaired vision
  • Confusion
  • Slower reactions
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor muscle control
  • Sleep disruption
  • Impaired problem-solving skills
  • Reduced reception to learning new information
  • Impaired memory
  • Impaired decision-making

Is ARBD Reversible?

In most cases, alcohol brain damage is reversible through treatment and abstinence from the substance. To begin with, the single most important step for reversing ARBD is to stop drinking the substance.

After that, the type of treatment recommended by the healthcare provider will depend solely on the type of ARBD that has occurred. For instance, in a situation where the type suffered is neurogenesis, abstinence from drinking will restart the development of new cells in the brain, and any resultant effects of the neurogenesis will slowly be reversed as time passes.

Alternatively, people with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome will typically be recommended for therapy involving thiamine to boost this Vitamin’s levels in the system. In that case, abstinence alone may not be enough – especially if there are hopes for an increased recovery speed.

Summarily, ARBD is reversible, but each treatment is recommended on a case by case basis.

Recap: How Alcohol Affects the Brain and Behavior

Excessive drinking clearly harms normal brain function. The short-term effects include intoxication and alcohol poisoning. The long-term effects showing how drinking affects the brain and behavior include a range of damaging changes in physical, mental, and behavioral well-being.

Some of the consequences of chronic heavy drinking are direct. However, the list of problems also includes hepatic encephalopathy, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, and other indirect outcomes. Teenagers who drink have unique brain-related risks, including heightened chances of developing alcoholism. Improvement is possible for people affected by drinking-related brain damage. However, as a rule, positive outcomes only come with abstinence from drinking.

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Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: June 30th, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.