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By Tim L | 16 February, 2020 Published in Guides
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Most people dependent on alcohol are no strangers to the slowed thinking and memory issues that accompany alcohol usage.

Though the impact of alcohol on the brain subsides with time automatically, it could turn into a major health scare the alcohol consumption is excessive and/or frequent.

This is why it’s so important to talk about the growing menace that is alcohol and its short-term and long-lasting impact on the human brain.

Alcohol’s Impact on the Brain

Alcohol starts to affect an individual’s brain right after it enters their bloodstream.

And since alcohol is a liquid and doesn’t have to undergo the digestion process that solid foods go through, its effects are almost immediate.

The impact of alcohol on the human brain and other parts of the body depend on multiple factors, which include:

  • Frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed
  • The period of drinking
  • The individual’s overall health status, current age, genetics, and gender
  • Family history of alcohol or substance abuse

Alcohol is usually called a “downer” since it slows down the signal transmission between neurons.

Moreover, specific automatic brain activities monitored by the cerebral cortex and cerebellum get slowed down or impaired by alcohol.

Some individuals with a long history of excessive use of alcohol develop nutritional deficiencies which further hamper brain function.

Parts of the Brain Impacted by Alcohol Abuse

There are different areas of the human brain that could be impacted by alcohol, which include the cerebellum, brain tissue, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex.

Excessive alcohol consumption could result in a long-lasting impact on the brain’s neurotransmitters, reducing their general effectiveness.

Alcohol also obliterates brain cells.

Alcohol affects both “inhibitory” neurotransmitters and excitatory neurotransmitters of the brain, such as:

  • Glutamate: Glutamate is responsible for brain activity and energy levels. Alcohol suppresses glutamate release, causing a significant slowdown in the brain’s pathways
  • Gama-aminobutyric acid (GABA): GABA has a calming effect on an individual. It does so by decreasing energy levels. Alcohol increases GABA production in the brain, causing feelings of drowsiness
  • Dopamine: Dopamine constitutes the brain’s reward centre. Alcohol boosts dopamine release within the reward centre, by tricking the brain into believing that alcohol makes one feel happy when it’s actually producing feelings of depression

How Alcohol Damages the Brain

Upon entering the human body, alcohol travels through the bloodstream from the intestines and stomach to different organs and parts of the body.

The increase in the blood’s alcohol content due to the heavy drinking overburdens the liver and hampers its alcohol-processing capabilities.

As a result, excess alcohol moves to other body parts from the liver, such as the central nervous system and heart. Consequently, the alcohol moves via the blood-brain hurdle, directly hurting the brain’s neurons.

When alcohol has run its course, the consumed individual would immediately feel a few pretty significant reasoning impairment problems such as trouble walking, slurred speech, blurry vision, difficulty with memorising things, and slower reaction times.

This is due to alcohol slowing down communication within the brain and acting as a central nervous system depressant. Alcohol affects the movement between neurotransmitters and neurons, which facilitate several major bodily functions, including speech, breath, movement, and thought.

Damage to the brain’s hippocampus region (which helps create memories) could lead to brain cell death and temporary memory loss.

Repeated impacts, which is a clear sign of excessive drinking, could lead to permanent damage that mitigates the brain from holding on to fresh memories.

For instance, a person may not have trouble recalling past events with great clarity, but they won’t remember the conversation on the same hours later.

People with a healthy liver and who drink in moderation would be able to quickly filter the alcohol out.

However, those who drink excessively would find their livers not being able to filter the alcohol quickly enough, causing pretty much instantaneous alterations in the brain.

The damage is a lot more significant if the liver is already in bad condition. Over a period, excessive consumption of alcohol damages both the liver and brain, resulting in permanent damage.

People Susceptible to Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

People most likely to be diagnosed with brain damage induced by alcohol consumption are individuals who drink too much and too often. They are also people who are not healthy otherwise or have some other underlying medical condition.

Generally, middle-aged people or those in their 50s or 40s are usually more likely to develop alcohol-related cerebral damage.

The Stages of Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication could happen quickly within a short span of time. When an individual consumes alcohol, various symptoms could be noticed.

These signs are linked with the different stages, or levels, of intoxication.

These intoxication stages vary across individuals since there are multiple variables at play, including age, gender, and weight.

Generally speaking, there are seven different alcohol intoxication stages and the following are their symptoms:

1. Sobriety

If an individual has ingested one or less than one drink per hour, they are considered to be low-level intoxicated, or sober.

At this stage, the behavior of the person would be normal with no apparent intoxication signs, such as delayed reaction time or slurred speech.

2. Euphoria

If a man has ingested a couple or three drinks or a woman has consumed one or a couple of glasses of liquor in an hour, they would have entered the euphoric’ intoxication stage.

Symptoms of euphoria include a surge in confidence and chattiness, decreased inhibitions, and delayed reaction times. Generally, this stage of intoxication is referred to as “tipsy”.

3. Excitement

At this level, a man may have consumed anywhere between three to five glasses in an hour; a woman is considered “excited” when she has gulped in anywhere between two to four glasses of alcohol.

At this phase, an individual would start to experience loss of coordination and emotional stability.

Other signs include vision problems, a loss of memory and judgment, loss of balance, and drowsiness. An individual would look noticeably “drunk” at this stage.

4. Confusion

If a male consumes six drinks or more or a woman has guzzled more than four drinks within an hour, they would have entered the stage of confusion’.

This intoxication level is evidenced by emotional outpourings and a sizeable loss of physical balance and coordination.

The consumed individual would have difficulties standing up, could stumble when walking, and would most likely be extremely confused or unaware of their surroundings.

People who are at this level of intoxication are quite likely to not remember things happening to or around them.

They could “blackout” while still being conscious and may not feel any pain.

These are people who are most likely to get injured as an indirect result of their drinking tendencies.

5. Stupor

At this level, an individual is no longer capable of responding to things happening to or around them.

The person will not be able to walk or stand. They could pass out completely or not be able to control their functions.

They could also have pale or blue-tinged skin or experience seizures.

Their gag reflexes and breathing would most likely get compromised.

This level of intoxication could be extremely dangerous and even end in death if the individual becomes critically injured as a result of the intoxication or chokes while vomiting. Medical attention is a must at this stage.

6. Coma

This intoxication level is very dangerous. At this level, the individual’s blood circulation and breathing would massively slacken.

Their gag reflexes and motor responses become non-functional, and there is a dip in their body temperature.

At this stage, an individual is virtually knocking at the door of death.

7. Death

At this stage, the alcohol intoxication is likely to result in a person’s death. To get to this stage, an individual may not drink too much.

Even if the person drinks hurriedly, they may reach this stage, skipping all the previous levels.

Getting Blacked Out from Alcohol

People who have spent an entire night drinking would agree that drinking and loss of memory make a solid match.

Large amounts of alcohol, particularly when gulped on an empty stomach and hastily, could cause a blackout.

A blackout’, within the current context, is basically a time period during which the intoxicated individual cannot recall important details of an event(s).

Such blackouts are usually quite common among people who drink socially.

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage Symptoms/Signs

To truly damage the brain through alcohol consumption, an individual should be drinking excessively and regularly.

It usually takes several years of heavy alcohol consumption for alcohol-connected brain damage symptoms or signs to manifest.

But then individuals who have been binge-drinking or drinking heavily for a week or two in a month are also at risk of brain damage that’s synonymous with heavy drinking.

Learning Disorders and Substance Abuse

Research studies, time and again, have linked learning disabilities with substance abuse.

Learning disabilities could be:

  • Dyslexia (difficulties in language processing and reading)
  • Dysgraphia (handwriting impairment that could result in spelling troubles)
  • Dyscalculia (difficulty in understanding or learning arithmetic)
  • Auditory processing disorder (affects the ways sounds are interpreted or processed in the brain)
  • Language processing disorder (causes issues for learners trying to find meaning in sounds composed of stories, sentences, and words)
  • Nonverbal learning disabilities (causes incongruity between verbal, visual-spatial, social, and motor skills)
  • Visual-motor deficit (impairs one’s ability to comprehend visual information, affecting the person’s reading skills and also their ability to copy or draw visual cues)

The presence of learning disabilities could result in substance abuse since there is an overlap between the two.

People with learning disorders usually suffer from lowered self-esteem, loneliness, depression, a lack of social acceptance, etc.

People who fall victim to alcohol and other substances usually cite the same reasons for their abusive behaviours.

Alcoholism’s Short-Term Effects on the Brain

Right after alcohol enters an individual’s bloodstream, it alters the brain’s functions.

Moderate alcohol consumption could cause the following short-term effects:

  • Inhibition loss
  • Decreased organizational and planning skills
  • Changes in concentration and mood
  • Difficulty creating new memories
  • Depressed mood
  • Poor judgment
  • Memory loss

Alcoholism’s Long-Term Effects/ Risks

People who drink heavily and regularly and have been doing that for a significant period of time are usually prone to alcoholism’s long-term effects.

The following are the brain-linked risks associated with heavy and sustained drinking:

1. Thiamine Deficiency

Thiamine is a B vitamin (vitamin B1) that is responsible for the brain’s energy supply. It sources this energy from food.

The vitamin is usually deficient in drinkers who ingest alcohol in excessive amounts.

Besides the poor nutrition or bad eating habits of people who drink, thiamine deficiency is the fallout of the stomach lining inflammation caused by excessive alcohol consumption, resulting in the reduced ability of the body to absorb vitamins.

2. Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens is basically an acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome that usually affects individuals with chronic alcoholism issues.

The condition is usually characterized by disorientation, hallucinations, uncontrollable shaking and anxiety.

The withdrawal syndrome usually sets in after other alcohol withdrawal signs start. Delirium tremens could last anywhere between a day and a week.

3. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wet brain’ is a popular drinking term that actually denotes a medical condition within the family of alcohol-connected brain damage called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).

This disease comprises two distinct-but-connected forms of dementia.

Individuals with AUD or alcohol use disorder are usually malnourished due to their poor diet.

This usually leads to a vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency since alcohol hinders an individual’s ability to use or absorb the vitamin. Close to 80 percent of individuals with this disorder have B1 deficiency.

Several develop brain-related conditions, such as WKS, due to their years of excessive drinking.

Symptoms of a wet brain include confusion, impaired learning ability, eye muscle paralysis, muscle coordination difficulties, and forgetfulness.

4. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

Alcohol-linked brain damage could be found in infants exposed to alcohol during their stay in their mother’s womb.

Alcohol travels to the fetus via the umbilical cord.

Generally, most women don’t come to know about their pregnancy until they are pregnant by four to six weeks.

Also, since close to 50 percent of all pregnancies in America are unplanned, the chances of developing FAS are quite high in ladies who drink and don’t use effective contraception methods.

FAS could cause stillbirth, miscarriage, and several other baby development disorders, which include small head size; hyperactivity; distinct facial features; impaired learning ability; hyperactivity; low IQ; poor hearing or vision; kidney; heart; and bone disorders.

Due to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) risks, there is no “safe” alcohol consumption level for a pregnant woman.

5. ARBI

ARBI (alcohol-related brain impairment) is a brain condition caused by heavy and regular drinking for years together.

The ARBI term encompasses several different conditions, which include alcoholic dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Heavy episodic drinking’ or binge drinking’ could also cause ARBI. Men and women consuming more than four regular drinks during a session are usually at risk.

Dealing with Concerning Behaviors

To effectively deal with ARBI-affected individuals, there are certain things friends and family of the affected could do.

Perhaps the most important thing is listening to them and reassuring them a loved one’s presence whenever they need help.

Also, talking to them in a soothing, calm tone works.

If the person responds well to any kind of treatment, offering praise and rewarding the behavior is highly recommended.

How to Diagnose

ARBI diagnosis begins with the person having completely stopped drinking for several weeks so that there is enough time for alcohol intoxication withdrawal symptoms to reach their peak and then completely subside.

Once abstinence has been observed for the recommended number of weeks, the doctor-in-charge would conduct a complete physical examination and learn more about the person’s past, primarily focusing on alcohol use.

The individual’s mental abilities would be tested.

The person would also be observed to check whether their condition worsens or stabilizes once they have not touched alcohol for a significant period.

ARBI diagnosis is recommended if the individual has impaired thinking, memory or reasoning that’s devastating enough to affect routine life.

Reversing Brain Damage

The human brain is a robust organ and can regenerate by itself to a great extent.

However, if the damage by alcohol consumption is severe, then external intervention is required to accelerate the process or get things back on track again.

Treatment

Based on how severely the brain has been damaged, patients could receive either preventive, curative, or supportive medical care. There is currently no actual cure or treatment for alcohol-induced brain damage.

For individuals with WKS, vitamin and thiamine supplements could help improve brain function.

Quick diagnosis of FAS and alcohol-related dementia could halt brain damage caused by alcohol. Lifestyle changes could also reverse deterioration to an extent.

But, for all kinds of alcohol-linked brain damage, quitting liquor is the ideal and necessary first step.

All treatment for alcohol-related diseases and AUDs begin with a total detox to release the harmful substances from the body.

Most medical professionals prescribe some kind of inpatient detoxing at a rehab centre.

This increases the chances of recovery significantly. Through proper detox, complete abstinence, and a good diet, the impact of heavy drinking on the brain could be undone.

Certain medications, such as naltrexone and acamprosate, could be prescribed for blocking a relapse’s effects or reducing alcohol cravings.

1. Acamprosate

Acamprosate is an FDA-approved medicine for alcoholism treatment.

It’s commonly used in America and several other countries for treating alcohol abuse cases.

By reacting with the brain’s neurotransmitter systems, acamprosate helps regulate and stabilize disarrayed brain activity likely caused by the cut in supply of any alcohol.

2. Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs used for slowing down central nervous system activity and the messages going back and forth between the body and the brain.

Also called minor tranquilizers, the drug is usually prescribed to relieve anxiety and stress and help people fall asleep.

These medicines could also be used for treating alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

3. Disulfiram

Disulfiram is a medicine used to help individuals maintain sobriety.

Typically sold under the Antabuse brand name, the medication is the first drug approved for alcohol use disorder treatment in America.

4. Naltrexone

A prescription drug, naltrexone is a member of the group of drugs called opioid antagonists, which mitigates the effects of opioid drugs such as heroin. It’s also prescribed to individuals with alcohol dependence.

The drug is usually administered as a tablet. It could also be administered through an implant.

The drug’s course depends on each individual’s situation and requirements.

Conclusion

Though drinking is extremely common in different parts of the world, it’s still and will always be an extremely unhealthy thing to do the human body.

Most people have this perception that occasional or “social drinking” is fine and should not hurt as much as binge or excessive drinking do.

Though true to an extent, it’s still recommended that people quit drinking or not pick up the habit since one never knows when those occasional sips of alcohol metamorphose into a habitual act or an addiction.

References

[1]  https://sunrisehouse.com/stop-drinking-alcohol/stages-intoxication/

[2]  https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/10/16/what-alcohol-really-does-to-your-brain/#43924379664e

[3]  http://shriverreport.org/why-are-50-percent-of-pregnancies-in-the-us-unplanned-adrienne-d-bonham/

[4]  https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/this-is-your-brain-on-alcohol-2017071412000

[5]  https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm

[6]  https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/alcohol-and-the-brain

[7]  https://bnf.nice.org.uk/drug/disulfiram.html

[8]  https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00659

[9]  https://www.healthline.com/health/wernicke-korsakoff-syndrome

[10]  https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/166032-overview

[11]  https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/delirium-tremens

[12]  https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/134-142.htm

[13]  https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sorting-out-the-health-effects-of-alcohol-2018080614427

[14]  https://ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/

[15]  https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/types-dementia/who-develops-arbd#content-start

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