Drinking alcohol might be socially acceptable in many cultures, but alcohol is a drug, and like any drug, it has an effect on the body. One or two drinks is unlikely to do you much harm, but drinking alcohol on a regular basis will begin to take its toll on the body, often causing irreparable damage in habitual heavy drinkers. So what does alcohol do to your brain and are the effects permanent?
Drinking alcohol has a number of effects on the brain and central nervous system. It is a depressant, which is why the more you drink, the more out of it you feel until eventually you keel over in a corner and fall asleep for a few hours. For the social drinker, this effect is usually only temporary and once the booze wears off, you are back to normal, albeit with a thumping headache, but for those who regularly drink, the effects can be far more damaging.
What does alcohol do to your brain in the short term?
Alcohol affects several different parts of the brain, although it can take a while before the outward signs of alcohol consumption begin to show, particularly in heavy drinkers whose bodies are able to tolerate much greater quantities of alcohol.
Cerebral cortex—alcohol affects our thought processes and sense of judgement, which is why we tend to do things whilst drunk that we would never contemplate doing when sober, thus giving rise to the beer goggles effect. Alcohol is also a great social lubricant and drunken people are far less inhibited. The effect of alcohol on the cerebral cortex also numbs your senses and makes you more tolerant of pain.
Limbic system—the septal area and hippocampus (limbic system) are responsible for memories and emotions, which is why alcohol can make us more emotional and volatile; alcohol can also cause memory blackouts if you overindulge.
Cerebellum—muscle coordination is controlled by the cerebellum, so when you have a lot to drink, your balance and fine movements are affected and eventually you fall over in a drunken heap.
Medulla—the brain stem controls automatic body functions such as breathing, body temperature and heart rate. The more you drink, the sleepier you feel, and when drunk to excess, alcohol consumption can cause unconsciousness and death.
Hypothalamus and pituitary gland—these work with the medulla to control many important body functions. Alcohol depresses the part of the hypothalamus that affects sex drive—it promotes feelings of desire, but takes away the ability to perform. Alcohol also causes the pituitary gland to slow down production of anti-diuretic hormone, so your kidneys cannot absorb as much water and more urine is produced—which is why you need to pee a lot more after a few drinks.
What are the long term effects of alcohol on the brain?
Long term alcohol abuse can cause irreparable brain damage similar to that caused by a stroke or dementia. Some of the damage can be reversed if the person stops drinking, but in severe cases, the person may never recover and will end up with permanent disabilities as a result of their addiction to alcohol.