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What Happens to the Brain Over Time During Alcohol Addiction

The effects of alcohol use over the short term are apparent; slurred speech, blurred vision, difficulty walking, and impaired memory all point to the stress our brains are under when consuming alcohol.

When alcohol is consistently consumed, the effects of alcohol may persist longer than these symptoms of drunkenness. Chronic alcohol use can lead to permanent damage to the brain.

Damage to Neurons

Alcohol may not kill brain cells like our teachers in high school told us, but it does damage the brain. Specifically, damage can be done to neurons, the cells that are the fundamental messengers of the brain.

For example, receiving input from the outside world, sending motor commands, and all electrical signals for the body. Therefore they are critical to all the functions of your brain.

Alcohol has been shown to damage the ends of neurons. This makes it difficult to send signals, impeding their ability to help your brain work.

Increased Risk

Long-term alcohol abuse may lead to more significant events that can seriously damage your brain. Alcohol use can increase the risk of stroke, leading to temporary or permanent disabilities, including paralysis.

Long-term alcohol use also heightens the risk of head injuries and accidents that can lead to Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs). TBIs are an injury that changes the way your brain works and is a significant reason for disability and death in the United States.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Thiamine is an essential vitamin (also called vitamin B1) that all tissues in your body and especially your brain require to function correctly. Unfortunately, up to 80% of people suffering from alcohol addiction are deficient in thiamine, which may lead to a severe brain condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

This syndrome consists of a short-term condition called Wernicke's encephalopathy (causing mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes, and difficulty with muscle coordination). There's also a long-lasting version called Korsakoff's psychosis (persistent learning and memory problems, as well as difficulty with frustration, walking, and coordination.)

Alcohol and Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter centered in the brain's motivation, pleasure, and reward center. The level of dopamine present in our brain affects our mood. Dopamine is released naturally when we do something pleasurable (your favorite food, show, exercise, or receive positive feedback). Dopamine is often called the happiness hormone. Alcohol triggers a high increase in dopamine levels, leading to a desire to repeat the experience.

The problem comes when your brain becomes accustomed to the higher levels of Dopamine produced by alcohol. When sober, your dopamine levels seem to bottom out because your tolerance is now so high. You have literally numbed yourself to happiness.

Cerebral Cortex Damage

Alcohol affects your cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is where we think. It processes incoming information, allowing us to formulate judgments and decisions. Alcohol depresses this function, lowering inhibitions, slowing sensory information input, and clouding our thought processes.

While this can be pleasurable short-term for many alcohol users and is often why they turn to alcohol use, prolonged alcohol exposure can permanently damage this crucial part of your brain.

Short-Term And Long-Term Effects

Alcohol has short-term effects we're all familiar with, but long-term use can lead to long-term consequences. Your brain can be damaged by the consistent application of alcohol, leading to permanent damage and conditions that will alter your quality of life.


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