Does Alcohol Really Kill Brain Cells?
Does Alcohol Really Kill Brain Cells?
December 1, 2021
News

“Too much drinking is going to destroy your brain cells, you know!”

You’ve probably heard it a time or two over the years. Plenty of adult figures have told you about the impact of excessive drinking throughout your life, from parents to teachers to the programs on television. Sure, heavy drinking isn’t a healthy hobby, but does alcohol really kill brain cells?

Experts aren’t sure that’s the case.

You’re likely to feel sluggish, slow, and incapable of concentrating after a night of heavy drinking. It might seem like your alcohol use stole a brain cell or two from you the night before. While research shows no evidence that drinking physically destroys brain cells, it does reveal that alcohol still has a detrimental effect on your brain .

What does drinking do to your brain?

Understanding Drinking Levels

Before you can understand how drinking alcohol affects your brain, you need to understand the different levels of drinking. Most experts split drinking into three categories: moderate drinking, heavy drinking, and binge drinking.

  • Moderate drinking refers to up to 1 drink per day for females and up to 2 drinks per day for males.
  • Heavy drinking refers to more than 3 drinks per day or 8 drinks per week for females and more than 4 drinks per day or 15 drinks per week for males.
  • Binge drinking refers to a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to the 0.08%, the legal limit. This means about 4 drinks within 2 hours for females and 5 drinks within 2 hours for males.

The standard definition of a drink for the categories above is: 

  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor (one shot)
  • 12 ounces of beer (one can)
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (¾ of a pint glass)
  • 5 ounces of wine (half a glass)

Short-Term Effects

Alcohol is a neurotoxin and has both direct and indirect effects on your brain cells. It reaches your brain within five minutes of drinking it and you can feel some effects as soon as 10 minutes after drinking.

Short-term effects of alcohol use include:

  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Changes in behavior or mood

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a short-term effect that occurs when you drink too much alcohol in a short period. If you drink more than your body can process, it can interfere with the parts of your brain that control basic functions such as:

  • Body temperature
  • Heart rate
  • Breathing

Alcohol poisoning can have lasting permanent effects if left untreated, including permanent brain damage or death.

Long-Term Effects

Alcohol use can also lead to long-term effects on your brain such as memory issues or decreased cognitive abilities.

Brain Atrophy

While alcohol doesn’t necessarily destroy brain cells, it can cause brain atrophy (shrinkage) in both heavy and moderate drinkers. Brain atrophy typically affects the hippocampus which is responsible for memory and reasoning.

Neurogenesis Problems

Again, alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells but it can cause lasting negative effects such as an impact on neurogenesis, your body’s natural ability to create new brain cells.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a neurological disorder caused by a thiamine deficiency. Heavy drinking can create this deficiency and cause the condition to develop. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome causes a loss of neurons in the brain which leads to confusion, memory loss, and loss of muscle coordination.

Effects on Brain Development

The effects of alcohol on the brain are magnified while the brain is still developing. Long-term brain damage is much more likely to occur in developing brains.

In Utero

Drinking while pregnant can damage the developing brain of the fetus and may result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) including: 

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder
  • Neurobehavioral disorder caused by prenatal alcohol exposure

In Minors

Minors who drink experience similar effects on their brains but to a more serious degree. Drinking while the brain is still developing can cause significant shrinkage of the hippocampus as well as smaller prefrontal lobes.

Finding Help

Thankfully, heavy alcohol use doesn’t have to be a lifetime problem. If you realize you need help to stop drinking there are options available. Drug and alcohol addiction treatment or tools like Soberlink’s alcohol monitoring device are some of the common ways people overcome their struggle with alcohol. Help is available if you choose to ask for it.



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