How Alcohol Affects the Brain


By Kate Esposito

There is no doubt that alcohol has an affect on the brain. It’s both why people drink it, for the most part, and why it can be so harmful. To understand how alcohol affects the brain, you have to know a little bit about the structure of the brain itself.

The brain consists of several different sections that control different aspects of what makes you human. They include:

  • The cortex, in charge of judgment and reasoning
  • The cerebellum, responsible for balance and coordination
  • The hypothalamus, that regulates appetite, temperature, pain, and emotions
  • The amygdala, for regulating social behavior
  • The hippocampus, the center of memory and learning

When a person ingests alcohol, it quickly enters the bloodstream. Through the bloodstream, it enters the brain. In the brain, it affects neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that either increase or decrease brain activity through electrical impulses.

Alcohol, unlike most other drugs of addiction, hits on a whole bunch of neurotransmitters at the same time. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is what makes alcohol the social lubricant. GABA helps rid the user of inhibitions. However, at the same time, it slows down the brain and creates sluggishness in the body. Dopamine, Glutamate and Serotonin stimulate pleasure and activate the brain’s reward center, giving it the signal that alcohol, like food, is good for your well-being. But serotonin and glutamate levels drop the more you drink, and as you consume more it can leave you feeling depressed. The more intoxicated you get, the more areas of the brain are compromised by the neurochemical reactions. That’s why it’s fairly obvious to tell the difference between someone who has had three drinks and someone who has had twelve.

So what parts of the brain does alcohol affect? Eventually, all of them.

The first area compromised is the cortex, which causes confusion and lowers inhibitions. Terrible jokes start to seem funny, and you are less afraid to talk to new people or sing bad karaoke.

Next, it hits the cerebellum, altering movement and balance. That’s when you fall off the stage after singing said karaoke and your voice starts to slur.

Keep drinking and it affects the hypothalamus and amygdala. That’s when crying fits happen and people injure themselves but don’t realize they did so until the next day. At this point, the person is acting on animal instinct alone, since all parts of the brain regulating reasoning have gone offline. Add still more alcohol, and it can affect the brain stem, which induces sleep and can cause irregular breathing and even seizures.

This is how even one binge event can lead to untimely death. Fortunately, most stop drinking or pass out before this level of impairment. While these impairments are not permanent and recede as the alcohol leaves the body, alcohol can also cause long-term damage to the brain in cases of continued habitual use or use by individuals under the age of 21. Read more about this next week.

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