Does Alcoholism Cause Brain Damage?

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Alcohol starts to injure the brain once it reaches the bloodstream. However, in a healthy individual, the liver screens alcohol successfully, assisting the body in eliminating the drug.

When individual drinks too much, the liver will no longer screen the liquor quickly enough, causing abrupt brain changes.

Excessive alcohol intake injures both the brain and the liver over time, resulting in more severe consequences, which is obviously not favourable.

Too much alcohol use has a long-term consequence for brain neurotransmitters, reducing or simulating their efficacy.

Alcohol causes both the destruction of the brain cells plus the contraction of brain tissue.

In addition, anyone who has a bad history of being alcoholic is nutritionally deficient, which affects their brain function.

The detailed effects of alcohol on the nervous system are identified by several factors, including a person’s physical fitness, how much amount of alcohol they take, and how good their livers are.

What is Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (ARBD)?

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage or ARBD is a type of brain disorder. This kind of brain disorder is a cause of the regular drinking of alcohol for many years now.

Generally, there are several kinds of ARBD. However, those people ageing from 40 to 50 are the ones who are prone to getting ARBD.

Brain Damage Caused by Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse may cause different types of brain damage, be it short-term or long-term damage. Drowsiness, depression, and a lack of control may all result from moderate alcohol ingestion.

This is because alcohol alters the way the brain works when it enters the circulatory system.

Some of the negative consequences of moderate alcohol intake are listed below:

  • Lack of restraint
  • declined planning skills
  • decreased in organizational skills
  • changes in concentration
  • difficulty in building new memories
  • changes in levels of energy
  • loss of memory
  • Motor control issues
  • mood changes
  • poor judgment
  • delayed reflexes

Alcohol poisoning is a possibility for individuals who have serious intoxication effects or symptoms which could last for several hours.

Alcohol contains ethanol, which serves as a toxin. If the liver cannot filter the poison fast enough, an individual can experience poisoning symptoms due to alcohol or overdose.

An extreme volume of alcohol harms the brain’s capacity to carry out essential life activities. Symptoms consist on:

  • Vomiting
  • Slow heart rate
  • Having trouble staying awake
  • Seizures
  • Low level of body temperature
  • A poor gag reflex will put a person at risk of choking if they vomit
  • Fainting
  • Sweaty skin

Alcohol poisoning can be deadly if it goes untreated. Even if the individual survives, severe alcohol overdose causes everlasting brain injury.

Alcohol poisoning will take place if the alcohol in the blood composition in a particular individual has increased.

Memory Lapses

After some drinks, alcohol could cause detectable neurological ailments, and the level of disability rises as the degree of alcohol intake increases.

A term that is called blackout is a moment where an unconscious individual cannot remember key facts or even whole events because of having a large volume of alcohol rapidly on an empty stomach.

Blackouts are prevalent than commonly assumed by societal drinkers. They can be considered a side effect of acute overdose irrespective of age or if the person is chemically reliant on alcohol.

Both males and females could have a blackout, even though men could drink even more often and excessively than women.

This observation specifies that, nonetheless of alcohol consumption, females tend to have blackouts than males, even though females have gained less reporting in the writings on blackouts.

Differences between how males and females digest alcohol are most likely to blame a woman’s penchant for passing out faster.

Women may be more vulnerable to minor forms of memory deficiencies due to drinking because they consume the same quantity of alcohol as men.

Effects of Alcoholism in Long Term Basis

The long term effects of alcoholism can result in significant brain damage over time.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Condition

WKS is a disorder that consists of two different syndromes: Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is a short-term and moderate illness, and Korsakoff’s insanity, which is a long-term and chronic condition.

Wernicke’s encephalopathy symptoms are:

  • Long-term uncertainty and disorientation after a time of intoxication
  • Malnutrition that can result in substantial weight loss
  • Facial gestures that are jerky or difficult to control
  • Poor balance

After Wernicke’s encephalopathy, an individual may have Korsakoff syndrome symptoms. This condition is a kind of dementia.

The Symptoms of dementia:

  • memory issues, especially difficulties developing new memories, are common
  • poor judgment
  • declined planning skills
  • decreased in organizational skills
  • mood swings
  • personality changes
  • hallucinations
  • a gradual loss in a cognitive capacity that can influence any aspect of one’s life, including voice, bowel, vision, and bladder function


The cerebellum, a portion of the brain responsible for movement coordination and perhaps certain aspects of learning, tends to be especially vulnerable to the effects of thiamine deficiency and is the area of the brain most often affected by excessive alcohol intake.

Thiamine supplementation improves brain function, particularly in patients with WKS who are still in the early stages.

When a brain injury is more serious, the focus on therapy moves to find help for the patient and his or her family.

For the 25% of patients who have an irreversible brain injury and severe lack of cognitive abilities, incarceration could be mandatory.

Scientists agree that a genetic mutation may be one reason why only a number of alcoholics with thiamine deficiency experience extreme disorders like WKS, but further research is needed to understand how genetic differences could make some individuals more susceptible to WKS than others.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy may have a variety of physical, learning, and behavioural consequences on the developing brain, the most severe of which is foetal alcohol syndrome, which is a series of symptoms (FAS).

In addition, FAS children may have distinctive facial characteristics.

FAS babies are often significantly lower than usual. Their heads may be smaller (i.e., microencephaly).

When the developing baby is exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, foetal alcohol spectrum conditions, also known as foetal alcohol syndrome, occur.

Foetal alcohol syndrome has a wide range of effects that can result in brain injury.

The Symptoms of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome:

  • intellectual disabilities
  • poor memory
  • trouble concentrating
  • hyperactivity
  • vision problems
  • hearing issues
  • weak coordination

Since doctors are yet to determine healthy levels of alcohol intake during birth, the only way to avoid Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is to avoid alcohol entirely during this period.

If a pregnant mother is unable to abstain entirely, she should try to limit her alcohol intake.

Scientists are looking at using sophisticated motor therapy and drugs to avoid or restore the alcohol-related brain injury seen in women who were exposed to alcohol during pregnancy.

Klintsova and collaborators used an obstacle course to teach complex motor skills to rats.

The adult rats’ brains reorganized due to the exercise, allowing them to counteract the effects of prenatal alcohol consumption.

These studies have significant psychological effects, implying that complex rehabilitative motor therapy can help children and adults with FAS enhance their motor function.

Scientists are now investigating the potential of creating drugs that help mitigate or avoid brain injury, such as that caused by FAS.

Treatments including antioxidant therapy and vitamin E have shown to be effective in animal studies.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Traumatic Brain Injuries are caused by crashes, car collisions, battles, and other hits to the head, and alcohol is a risk factor for TBI.

Based on the 2010 study, 35–81 percent of people seeking TBI care are inebriated.

Head injury may cause discomfort and disorientation in the short term. It’s even possible that it’ll cause risky brain swelling.

Since severe head trauma impairs the brain’s capacity to regulate vital functions, including ventilation or blood pressure, they can be catastrophic.

Long-Term Reactions of Traumatic Brain Injuries:

  • Memory issues, especially difficulties developing new memories, are common
  • Poor judgment
  • Declined planning skills
  • Decreased in organizational skills
  • Increased the risk of Alzheimer’s disease mood swings
  • Personality changes
  • Increased risk of Parkinson’s disease
  • Hallucinations
  • Changes in the brain’s blood flow patterns
  • Psychological effects
  • Trouble focusing, mood swings, and depression are all common psychological symptoms of alcohol consumption.

    Alcohol has several psychological effects, which include:

    • personality changes
    • mood swings
    • changes on impulse control
    • depression
    • trouble concentrating

    Addiction, on the other hand, is probably the most profound psychological influence. People who drink massive amounts of alcohol grow resistant to drugs over time.

    They become reliant as well. When they don’t drink, their brains miss the opioid, allowing them to feel withdrawal.

    Addiction causes an individual to continue to use alcohol even though it causes them harm.

    People who have a severe alcohol use disorder can drive delirium tremens, an unsafe withdrawal syndrome (DT).

    DT starts with psychiatric signs such as:

    • anxiety
    • insomnia
    • extreme alcohol cravings
    • delusions or hallucinations
    • paranoia

    DT would be lethal in more than 1/3 of those who are infected if not treated.

    Seizures, dangerous increases in blood pressure, and frequent diarrhoea and vomiting are all symptoms of DT, which may lead to dietary shortages.

    Physiological Effects

    More than only the brain is harmed by alcohol. An extreme overdose, as well as long-term addiction, will damage the body system.

    Alcohol has the following biochemical effects:

    • high level of blood pressure
    • changes in the heart rhythm
    • kidney failure
    • liver disease
    • heart disease
    • harm to the blood vessels
    • pancreatitis, or the inflammation on the pancreas
    • frailer immune system

    How Much Alcohol Would People Consume Without Harming Themselves?

    Even though alcohol may cause severe brain harm, new evidence shows that moderate alcohol intake can be helpful to the brain.

    People who are taking alcohol in their midlives are likely to experience alcoholic dementia , according to a 2018 survey that tracked 9,087 participants for 23 years.

    Those who drank fourteen or fewer alcohols a week had the lowest chance of dementia.

    Dietary Guidelines and Requirements for Americans in the United States, 2015–2020 suggest women should not have more than 1 one drink a day, and men shouldn’t have higher in two drinks in a day.

    Those who should abstain from consuming alcohol are those who:

    • suffer from an alcohol use problem
    • are taking medications that interfere with alcohol
    • or have some liver disorders and are having trouble controlling their drinking
    • pregnant

    It’s vital to take an individualized approach because healthy alcohol consumption ranges from one person to another person, or different reports prescribe different intakes.

    To get personalized advice about controlled alcohol intake, people can speak with a healthcare provider about the history of their drinking and personal risk factors.

    How Can You Cut Down Your Alcohol Consumption?

    If you have some history of substance abuse, talk to your doctor for a prescription detox.

    People who have a history of substance abuse may be unable to drink alcohol safely. In these situations, abstaining from drinking is the safest option.

    When people with chronic addictions or a long history of substance abuse want to leave, they may have severe withdrawal symptoms.

    People should consult with a doctor for clinically managed detox, which will help them avoid serious problems like delirium tremens. 

    In addition, inpatient rehabs or advocacy services like Alcoholics Anonymous may be beneficial for specific individuals.

    The following methods should be seen by people who wish to reduce their alcohol use:

    • limiting one drink per day for those women and two drinks per day for men who drink at certain hours or on certain days, such as parties or weekends

    • consuming drinks with lower content of alcohol, such as wine instead of spirits, to deal with mental tension or fall asleep


    The alcohol reactions on the brain may vary based on the dosage and other things, including physical wellbeing.

    But, generally, the higher the alcohol content a person consumes, the higher the possibility that he or she is to suffer short- and long-term brain injury.

    The best approach for lowering the risk of alcohol-related brain injury is to drink in moderation.

    People who splurge drink, have glass up to impairing judgment, or purposefully become inebriated regularly are at a significantly greater risk of developing alcohol-related brain injury.

    There are also different types of alcoholics. They have varying degrees of illness, and the disorder manifests itself in various ways for other patients.

    As a result, scientists have yet to provide definitive proof that any factor is entirely responsible for the brain deficits seen in alcoholics.

    It’s also a work in progress to figure out what makes certain alcoholics vulnerable to brain injury and others aren’t.

    The good update is that most alcoholics with neurological dysfunction regain their brain development and function after a year of abstinence, but some take longer.

    To help patients avoid drinking and recover from alcohol-related brain impairments, clinicians must identify a range of recovery approaches and adapt all therapies to the patient.

    In the development of these treatments, advanced technology can play a critical role.

    For example, since imaging can show physiological, functional, and biochemical changes in living patients over time, clinicians can use brain–imaging methods to track the progress and effectiveness of therapy.

    Researchers are now working on promising experimental drugs that help mitigate the adverse effects of alcohol and facilitate the formation of new brain cells to replace those affected by alcohol.

    After learning about the effects of alcoholism, especially on our brain, how will you use this information to move forward in your addiction recovery journey?

    You can make a note right now of one point from what we’ve talked about above and add it to your recovery aftercare plan.

    Meanwhile, you can visit Abbeycare’s treatment centres in Scotland and Gloucester to learn more about the possible treatments for all alcohol-related brain illness.

    About the author

    Laura Morris

    Laura Morris is an experienced clinical practitioner and CQC Registered Manager with over twenty years experience, over ten of which have been as an Independent Nurse Prescriber.

    She has held a number of senior leadership roles in the substance use and mental health sector in the NHS, the prison service and in leading social enterprises in the field.

    Last Updated: November 6, 2023