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  • Drinking alcohol impacts cognition (your ability to think) in a wide variety of ways.

    Alcohol use disorder (AUD), also known as alcohol addiction or alcoholism, also has a number of long-term effects on human brain structure and function.


    While it only takes a few drinks to impair your memory, heavier consumption eventually results in amnesia or short-term memory loss

    These blackouts occur when someone drinks too much too quickly (binge drinking), causing blood alcohol levels to spike. They are widely reported among those with AUDs as well as social drinkers in certain settings, especially college campuses.

    Severe Short-Term Consequences

    Unfortunately, blackouts are linked with many of the worst short-term consequences of alcohol impairment, including:

    • alcohol poisoning
    • sexual assault
    • risky sex
    • car accidents
    • accidental injuries
    • acts of violence

    And, according to the US. Department of Health and Human Services, up to 51% of college undergraduates who had ever consumed alcohol report experiencing a blackout at least once.

    Mental Health Effects

    Many individuals have turned to alcohol to help manage day-to-day stress and anxiety. However, if this use becomes a problem and develops into an AUD, it likely has the exact opposite function. 

    Anxiety & Depression

    AUDs are known to trigger anxiety disorders and depression in those who have never experienced them before and can make these conditions worse if they are already present.

    This effect is thought to relate to the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), among others. 

    GABA works to decrease activity in the central nervous system, slowing down your body and mind. Because alcohol has a similar effect, AUDs can prompt the body to minimize GABA function to compensate.

    This means that whenever the effects of alcohol begin to wear off, the body and mind can become overactive and chaotic, causing depression, paranoia, and panic.

    Brain Damage

    Some examples of why alcohol-related brain damage can occur include: 

    • reduced cerebral blood flow and glucose metabolism
    • impaired cognitive function
    • poor nutrition
    • increased prevalence of severe liver disease

    Brain Shrinkage

    Brain shrinkage, specifically in the brain region known as the frontal lobe, is a common indicator of brain damage, and it can indeed be caused by long-term alcohol abuse. 

    This effect is significant. According to one alcohol research study, heavy drinkers at ages thirty through fifty were more than twice as likely to experience brain shrinkage than non-drinkers.

    Light to moderate alcohol consumption did not seem to impact brain volume.

    Alcohol Affects Women’s Brains More Severely

    While men are more likely to struggle with alcohol dependence, women are significantly more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol when engaged in chronic heavy drinking. 

    This includes brain shrinkage, which in one study determined that women were as likely to experience a certain level of brain shrinkage after living with an AUD for only half as long as men experiencing the same degree of effect. 

    Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome

    Up to 80% of those with alcohol use disorders develop a deficiency in thiamine during their lifetimes. Also known as vitamin B1, thiamine is found in meat, grains, nuts, and peas, and many packaged foods in the United States are fortified with this essential nutrient. 

    Thiamine deficiency (and, by association, alcohol use disorder and malnutrition) has its greatest effect on the cerebellum, the part of the brain that deals with coordination. 

    This deficiency may result in a serious brain disorder known as Wernicke–Korsakoff Syndrome, which has two components. 

    Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

    When thiamine levels are too low, it can impair brain functions and potentially result in: 

    • short-term mental confusion
    • paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes
    • difficulty with muscle coordination

    However, not all of these symptoms are likely to appear together in the same individual.

    Korsakoff’s Psychosis

    Around 80 or 90% of those with AUDs who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis. 

    This is an even more debilitating and longer-lasting condition known to cause persistent learning and memory problems, including retrograde amnesia (remembering old information) and severe anterograde amnesia (remembering recent information). 

    Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

    Some of the most serious effects of alcohol on the brain can occur before birth.

    If more than a minimum amount of alcohol (thirteen drinks in thirty days or two drinks in one sitting) is consumed during pregnancy (especially the later stages of development), there is the potential that it may result in permanent physical, learning, and behavioral effects on the fetus. 

    These are known collectively as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). 

    FASDs can cause infants to be smaller than average, have smaller brains, and have fewer numbers of neurons (brain cells) with fewer neurons that work correctly. 

    Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment

    The best way to prevent or limit the harmful effects of alcohol on the brain is to stop drinking entirely. If you would like more information on our substance abuse treatment options, please contact us today.

    The Alcoholic Brain FAQs

    What Is Alcoholic Dementia?

    As its name suggests, alcoholic dementia is a type of dementia caused by alcohol abuse. 

    In most cases, it’s caused by thiamine deficiency. Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, is an essential nutrient that helps your brain cells produce energy so they can work correctly. 

    Many people who abuse alcohol lack thiamine because they have poor eating habits or inflamed stomach lining that prevents proper nutrient absorption. 

    Like other types of dementia, alcoholic dementia causes issues with memory, problem-solving, language, and other cognitive functions. 

    Learn more about Alcoholic Dementia

    What Is Alcoholic Encephalopathy?

    Alcoholic encephalopathy, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, is caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency and involves sudden, short-lived symptoms of confusion, tremors, impaired muscle coordination, and vision and eye movement changes.

    This is often, but not always, followed by Korsakoff syndrome, a lasting condition of memory loss, hallucinations, and confabulation (making up new memories).

    Learn more about Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

    What Is Wet Brain?

    Wet brain syndrome is a condition caused by a lack of thiamine, or vitamin B1. Alcohol abuse is often the root cause for a lack of vitamin B1. Wet brain can cause symptoms such as impairment, memory loss, disorientation, coma, and other serious problems.

    Learn more about Wet Brain Syndrome

    What Is Alcoholic Psychosis?

    Psychosis is a mental state in which you lose touch with reality. It may involve hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there) and delusions (holding beliefs that aren’t based on reality).

    As its name suggests, alcohol-related psychosis is a type of psychosis caused by alcohol. Specifically, it occurs due to acute alcohol intoxication, alcohol withdrawal, or alcohol-related brain damage. 

    Learn more about Alcoholic Psychosis

    What Is Alcoholic Cerebellar Degeneration?

    Alcoholic cerebellar degeneration refers to tissue damage in the brain caused by consuming large quantities of alcohol. Primarily seen in alcoholics, the degeneration of brain tissue can cause motor incoordination and other health problems. 

    Learn more about Alcoholic Cerebellar Degeneration

    Why Are Alcoholics So Selfish?

    Alcohol dependence motivates someone to continue drinking, despite the consequences. Alcoholics can seem selfish because alcohol becomes their main priority. When an alcoholic isn’t drinking, they are worried about when they will be able to drink again. 

    This can lead to selfish behaviors, like stealing and lying, in order to get what they need. However, many alcoholics feel guilt, shame, and remorse for their selfish behavior. 

    To learn more, read Why Do Alcoholics Seem So Selfish?

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Alcohol Research: Current Reviews - Anxiety and Alcohol Use Disorders
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Basics about FASDs
    Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, & Psychiatry - Alcohol consumption and frontal lobe shrinkage: study of 1432 non-alcoholic subjects
    National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - ALCOHOL'S DAMAGING EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on June 30, 2022
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