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The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain: Understanding the Science

The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain: Understanding the Science

Consuming too much alcohol is damaging for the body, and more specifically, the brain. So, how does alcohol affect the brain? Learn the answer here.

When we think about the side effects and dangers of alcohol misuse, we probably imagine hangovers, alcohol-related accidents and injuries, or perhaps alcohol poisoning. While these consequences can certainly come along with alcohol misuse, it’s important to remember that long-term alcohol consumption, especially in excessive amounts, can take a toll on the brain and body. People may wonder, “How does alcohol affect the brain?” Below, learn the answer to this question, as well as how to determine when it’s time to seek alcohol rehab to recover from the negative effects of alcohol on the brain and body. 

How Alcohol Affects the Body 

It can be safe to consume alcohol in moderation, but consuming large amounts of alcohol can be damaging for health. Experts recommend that women limit themselves to no more than one alcoholic beverage per day, and that men consume a maximum of two alcoholic drinks per day, if they choose to drink at all. Regularly consuming more than this amount, or engaging in binge drinking, can have the following negative effects on the body. 


Alcohol misuse increases the risk of various types of cancers, including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and rectal cancer. 

Cardiovascular Diseases

Excessive alcohol use is linked to high blood pressure, and it increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Immune System Problems

Drinking too much can weaken the immune system and make it more likely that a person will become sick.

Liver Problems

Consuming too much alcohol damages the liver and can lead to chronic liver disease. 

How Alcohol Affects The Brain 

Most people are aware of the short term effects of alcohol on the brain. If you’ve ever experienced the sensation of being drunk, you’re well aware that alcohol consumption has a pretty immediate effect on brain functioning. Soon after drinking, alcohol has a negative effect on areas of the brain that control speech, judgment, coordination, and memory. This is why binge drinking or drinking to the point of intoxication can result in symptoms like unsteady gait, slurred speech, and poor decision-making. 

For people who drink only occasionally or in moderation, the brain is able to recover from occasional bouts of drinking. On the other hand, long-term alcohol misuse can cause brain damage and lead to deficits in brain functioning, because it can reduce the size of nerve cells.  

Even if it occurs only occasionally, binge drinking can have negative effects on the brain. For instance, large quantities of alcohol can block the transfer of memories to an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for storing memories over the long-term. This can result in memory blackouts. 

Heavy alcohol consumption also shuts down areas of the brain responsible for basic life functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control. This means that heavy drinking can result in an overdose, which may cause extreme confusion or difficulty maintaining consciousness. In extreme cases, alcohol overdose can cause a person to stop breathing, and it may be fatal. Additionally, overdose can cause lasting brain damage in some cases. 

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Effects Of Alcohol On The Brain 

Alcohol’s effect on the brain causes intoxication symptoms over the short-term, but with long-term, heavy alcohol use, a person may experience the following effects on brain functioning. 

Memory Impairment

Alcohol can cause short-term memory impairment, as it may lead to blackouts, in which a person forgets events that happened while they were under the influence of alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol can also cause lasting memory impairment. A study of people with alcohol use disorders found that these individuals had smaller brain volumes in the frontal lobes and the hippocampus. They also showed deficits in episodic memory, which is the ability to remember details of events. 

Increased Risk Of Dementia

Because alcohol misuse damages the brain, people who drink excessively are more likely to develop dementia. In fact, research shows that heavy drinking changes the structure of the brain, leads to cognitive impairment, and increases the risk of all types of dementia. 

Effects On The Teenage Brain

Unfortunately, the negative effects of alcohol on the brain are especially likely to affect teenagers. Teenagers who binge drink or meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, which is the clinical term for an alcohol addiction, show deficits in cognitive functioning, changes in brain structure, and differences in brain activity when compared to those who do not drink. 

Worse Mental Health

People sometimes wonder, “How does alcohol affect your mental health?” The answer is that heavy alcohol use increases the risk of mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Alcohol is thought to affect a brain chemical called GABA, which inhibits the stress response in the brain and body. This means that people may use alcohol as a source of self-medication for stress and anxiety. Over time, alcohol changes the way that the brain produces and reacts to GABA, which actually makes mental health worse. 

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage 

Chronic alcohol misuse can result in severe brain damage, which can occur directly due to alcohol misuse, or as a result of poor health among individuals who are addicted to alcohol. For instance, poor nutrition is linked to thiamine deficiencies among individuals with alcohol use disorders. 

Thiamine deficiency can lead to a severe brain condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This condition begins with a temporary condition called Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which causes coordination problems, nerve damage in the muscles that move the eyes, and confusion. Many people who experience Wernicke’s encephalopathy go on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, a chronic, highly debilitating brain disorder. This condition causes problems with learning and memory and can lead to coordination difficulties. Individuals who have Korsakoff’s psychosis may not remember the details of conversations or events that have occurred within the past hour.

Even young drinkers may develop early signs of alcohol-related brain damage and impairment. For example, young binge drinkers, aged 18 to 24, have been found to show impairment in various regions of the brain, including the frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and hippocampus. This means that heavy alcohol use, even among young adults, can affect memory, decision-making, and speech. If left untreated, binge drinking can lead to an alcohol use disorder, which over time can damage the brain further and lead to severe problems with brain functioning. 

Stages of Alcohol Intoxication

Another part of understanding what happens to the brain when you drink alcohol is learning about the stages of alcohol intoxication. According to medical experts, alcohol intoxication occurs in seven potential stages.

Subliminal Intoxication

After just one drink, the blood alcohol content (BAC) rises to as high as .05. You may not feel or appear intoxicated yet, but because of alcohol’s effects on the brain, your reaction time and judgment may be slightly impaired. 


You may describe this stage of alcohol intoxication as “being tipsy.” At this stage, the BAC rises as high as .12, and a person begins to feel relaxed, happy, and confident, because alcohol is increasing levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine. Memory and decision-making capacities are becoming more impaired. 


This next stage of alcohol intoxication affects various lobes of the brain, including the occipital lobe, temporal lobe, and frontal lobe. Because of these effects, a person may experience blurry vision, slurred speech, and difficulty with self-control. You may begin to experience nausea or vomiting during this stage. 


With a BAC of 0.18 to 0.3, people become increasingly disoriented. An area of the brain called the cerebellum, which is responsible for movement, is impaired, which results in coordination problems. A person in this stage of intoxication may have trouble walking on their own, and they are at risk of blacking out. 


At around a BAC of .25, a person will reach a state of alcohol-induced stupor. This means that their cognitive and physical functions are severely impaired. 


This stage of alcohol intoxication, which occurs around a BAC of .35, places you at risk of death or lasting brain damage. When the BAC is this high, alcohol impairs breathing, circulation, and reflexes, leading to coma. 


If alcohol consumption is heavy enough, the BAC will reach as high as over 0.45. In this state, death is possible, because a high BAC can lead to alcohol poisoning. The effects of alcohol on the brain may also be strong enough at this BAC level to shut down areas of the brain that control breathing and other vital functions. 

How Does A Normal Brain Compare To A Brain Of Someone With Alcohol Use Disorder? 

Research has shown that people with alcohol use disorders are likely to experience cognitive impairment, which means that brain functioning of those with alcohol use disorders is typically weakened when compared to a healthy brain. Studies also show that chronic alcohol misuse causes functional changes in brain regions associated with planning, problem-solving, and controlling impulses. The healthy brain is likely to perform better than an alcohol-damaged brain on these tasks. People with healthy brains also tend to show better functioning in areas that control memory and visual processing.

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If you’re searching for information on the impact of alcohol on the brain, you may be interested in the answers to the following questions about what drinking does to your brain. 

Can Your Brain Heal From Alcohol Misuse?

Alcohol misuse can cause brain damage, which can range from mild to severe. A study with people in treatment for alcohol use disorder found that nearly half had some form of cognitive impairment when they began treatment. For most people, cognitive impairment was mild, and completing treatment was associated with significant improvements in cognitive functioning. Based upon these findings, there is strong evidence that entering recovery helps the brain to heal from alcohol misuse. 

On the other hand, severe cases of alcohol misuse can cause serious and chronic brain disorders, such as Korsakoff’s psychosis. If alcohol-related brain damage progresses to this point, brain damage can become permanent, and a person may need assistance with daily care and living skills. 

Does Alcohol Affect Intelligence?

Alcohol is associated with cognitive impairment, which can range from mild to severe. With chronic alcohol misuse, your brain may not perform as well on tasks such as planning, remembering, organizing, and making decisions. This can come across as a decline in intellectual functioning.

How Do I Know If I Have Brain Damage From Alcohol?

Ultimately, only a doctor or mental health professional can diagnose an alcohol use disorder and determine if you have brain damage from alcohol misuse. If you have been heavily drinking, and you find that you have difficulty with remembering and learning new information, or you are not thinking as clearly, it may be time to work with an alcohol rehab program. Professionals working in such a program can diagnose an alcohol use disorder and help you create a treatment plan that addresses the consequences of alcohol misuse, including alcohol-related brain damage. 

Does Alcohol Worsen Anxiety?

People may use alcohol to self-medicate mental health conditions like anxiety. While alcohol may provide temporary relief by creating a calming effect, it is likely to make anxiety worse over time. First, you are likely to develop a tolerance over time, which means you will need more and more alcohol to achieve the same desired effects. Second, alcohol can change brain functioning in ways that make it difficult for the brain to produce calming chemicals on its own. When you stop drinking, you are likely to find that anxiety is even worse. 

How Long Does It Take For Brain Chemistry To Return To Normal After Alcohol?

While alcohol’s effects on the brain can be quite damaging, the good news is that the brain can recover. Research shows that with just three months of abstaining from alcohol use, people experience increases in brain volume in regions impacted by alcohol. 

Does Alcohol Cause Mental Retardation?

Severe and chronic alcohol misuse can result in a condition called Korsakoff’s psychosis, which causes severe confusion and difficulty with learning and memory. This condition can appear similar to “mental retardation.” A person who has this condition may not be able to live alone, and they may require a caretaker to help them with daily living skills.  

How Fast Does Alcohol Reach The Brain?

Alcohol is fast-acting. It reaches the brain within about 5 minutes, and it can begin to affect your behavior and functioning in as soon as 10 minutes. 

Recover From An Alcohol Use Disorder With Confidant Health 

If you are having difficulty giving up alcohol, despite negative consequences, such as impaired cognitive functioning, you may have an alcohol use disorder. The good news is that an alcohol rehab program can help you overcome triggers for drinking and make a commitment to recovery. If you have been unable to stay engaged in recovery, medication assisted treatment for alcohol use may be a suitable treatment option for you. Medications used to treat alcohol misuse can help you to manage your cravings.

At Confidant Health,we provide online medication assisted treatment for alcohol use. Download our app today, on either the Apple Store or Google Play Store, to get started. 

This article has been medically reviewed by
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Nurse Practitioner

Erin is a Nurse Practitioner with 8 years of experience in midwifery and women's health. She has spent the past 5 years specializing in the treatment of opioid and alcohol use disorders.

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