Updated: Aug 25, 2022
In this blog I discuss alcohol and it’s effect on the brain. Specifically I talk about:
What happens to your brain when you drink a lot of alcohol
What happens to your brain when you drink a little alcohol
What areas of your brain are more vulnerable to alcohol
What is your favourite alcoholic drink? Me, I love a glass of whiskey. I also love a glass of wine and Prosecco. I’m not much of a lager drinker. It’s not that I don’t like it, it just makes me FEEL a bit bloated and fat.
When we think about alcohol and it’s effect on the brain, we generally think of how it damages the brain, but is this truly the case? Let’s find out what the science says…
Drinking alcohol throughout your life
Welch et al (2017) followed 550 people throughout 30 years. They looked at alcohol consumption and it’s effect on the brain.
One of their conclusions from the study was that a higher consumption of alcohol was related to reduced white matter (responsible for exchanging information and communication) in the brain.
Higher consumption of alcohol was also associated with a decrease in lexical fluency (slower speech and vocabulary).
Alcohol consumption was also related to reduced volume of the right hippocampus. The right hippocampus plays a crucial role in spatial memory. Atrophy in the right hippocampus was more likely in moderate drinkers (21 units a week) compared to those who didn’t drink.
Alfonso-Loeches (2011) looked into the effect of chronic alcohol use on the brain. In general, findings suggested that alcohol abuse leads to alterations in brain structure, function and sometimes, neuro-degeneration.
Alfonso-Loeches also suggested that cognitive deficits are massive consequences of alcohol abuse which can influence every aspect of life.
Fauth- Buhler (2011) suggested, after looking into chronic use of alcohol and the brain, that alcohol abuse is linked to a reduction in grey (processes information) and white matter in the brain.
Not only this but alcohol consumption disrupts the balance of neurotransmitter systems (which is linked to various mental health conditions).
Vulnerability to alcohol
Alfonso-Loeches also concluded that during adolescence, the brain is extremely vulnerable to alcohol and that heavy drinking during adolescence can negatively impact the structure and function of brain. These negative impacts can have short term and long term effects on cognition and behaviour.
Further, research showed that the following parts of the brain are more vulnerable to alcohol than other parts of the brain:
Prefrontal cortex (various cognitive functions)
Hippocampus (learning and memory)
Cerebellum (balance and posture)
Glial cells (neuroplasticity)
Oscar-Berman and Merinkovic (2007) also suggested that the frontal lobes (various motor and cognitive processes) and the limbic system (emotional and behavioural responses) are also vulnerable to alcohol consumption.
Reading all of that, makes you feel terrible, right? No more drinking on the weekends, when you’re with your friends or at a social occasion? Don’t you worry. Not all evidence seems to suggest drinking is terrible for you!
Bjork and Gilman (2014) looked into acute drinking and it’s effect on the brain. They found that light drinking suppresses the function of the cerebellum.
This explains why you get dizzy and disorientated when you’ve had a few as the cerebellum is responsible for balance.
Bjork and Gilman also found that drinking a little alcohol enhances the ventral striatum and some neuronal activity in the brain. So it’s not ALL that bad!
If you want to know the effects of drinking after a traumatic brain injury, check out this blog article - https://www.weirdwonderfulbrain.com/post/alcohol-use-after-a-brain-injury
Sometimes drinking alcohol gives you a confidence boost and makes you feel more at ease. If done in moderation then having an alcoholic drink is fine for your brain.
But remember, you don’t have to have an alcoholic drink when other people are. Have an alcoholic drink when you want to, on your terms. Not to fit in. Protect your brain, don’t drown it.